Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar is one of the strangest comedies I’ve seen. Written by Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the movie feels like two SNL skits mashed together and then filled out with a lot of comedic bits that range from quirky to inspired to hallucinogenic. I’m really curious as to what drug(s) Wiig and Mumolo were on while writing the script, because I find it difficult to believe they wrote it stone sober.
The titular characters are a couple of middle-aged single ladies from Nebraska, portrayed respectively by Mumolo and Wiig. With their Fargo-esque accents, drab outfits and helmet hair, I’d be hard pressed to categorize their characterizations of typical Midwestern women as affectionate. Personality-wise, they’re a couple of dim bulb oddballs with a penchant for talking, and talking, and talking some more about ridiculously trite subjects (people in the 1800s stunk!).
When their dream jobs at the local Jennifer furniture store come to an abrupt end, they take a vacation at Vista Del Mar to add some spark to their lives. After arriving, they hook up with the hunky Edgar (Jamie Dornan), the henchman of the evil Sharon Fisherman (Wiig, in a dual role). Fisherman, a villain who owes much to Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies, has sent Edgar to Vista Del Mar to help carry out her plot of revenge against the city that wronged her as a child.
Barb & Star is chockablock with gags (sight, visual and physical), and most of them land. The movie has a busy feel to it, a result of trying to do too much. As is typical for screwball comedies, the art is in separating the wheat from the chaff. The script would have resulted in a shorter but much better movie. For example, the entire Fisherman subplot never takes flight and should have been cut out entirely. Additionally, Barb and Star should have been given some differentiating characteristics (think Lloyd and Harry in Dumb and Dumber). As it stands, they are so similar as to be interchangeable, and their shtick becomes annoying at times. Still, Barb & Star has enough inspired comedy (and weirdness) for me to recommend it. You may suffer from mild brain damage from the experience, however. Mildly recommended.
The story of Barb & Star consists of two distinct plot elements. The first and weaker of the two concerns the evil mastermind Sharon Fisherman (Kristin Wiig, looking like an albino Disco singer), a Dr. Evil wannabe assisted by two henchmen: a brilliant young Asian boy named Yoyo (Reyn Doi) and hunky Number Two Edgar (Jamie Dornan, a good sport through it all). Her fiendish plot involves unleashing genetically modified lethal mosquitoes upon the Floridian city of Vista Del Mar. (The reason why is eventually revealed in a typical villain’s monologue.)
The second plot involves two single, middle aged ladies from Soft Rock, Nebraska: Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristin Wiig, in a dual role). They work at a Jennifer furniture store, speak with Fargo-inspired accents, dress in drab outfits, sport helmet hair dos and spend most, if not all of their time discussing incredibly inane topics (ex: having sex with product mascots like Mr. Peanut).
Barb and Star’s charmed existence quickly implodes when the Jennifer store closes and they are expelled from their local Talking Club for lying about it. With no prospects on the horizon, they decide to take the advice of a friend and vacation at Vista Del Mar based in, where else, Florida. After they arrive, they ping pong between the swank Vista Del Mar Hotel and the odious Vista Del Mar Motel, leading to some of the best gags in the movie. The Hotel welcomes the two with a full on musical number (soul douche!), while the Motel confirms whether they need sheets and pillows.
After finally taking residence at the Hotel, Barb and Star strike up an acquaintance with Edgar at the bar. The three jointly polish off a drink called The Buried Treasure, and proceed to have a night of debauchery on the dance floor and in bed. The following morning, Edgar raises Fisherman’s ire when he confesses that he lost a key piece of equipment for her plot. She coldly tells him that the two will never become “official” until her plot comes to fruition. (I think “official” means physical, but the movie never clarifies that point.) Realizing she’s just leading him on, Edgar expresses his tortured emotions in a hilarious musical sequence on the beach, and it’s the high-point of the movie. (“Seagulls in the sand, can you hear my prayer?”)
That evening, Edgar is enticed by Barb and Star separately to continue their casual relationship. Barb feels guilty about going behind Star’s back and bails. Star also feels guilty, but proceeds to have sex Edgar against some “very hard wooden stairs”. Over the next day, Star feigns illness to repeatedly hook up with Edgar, while Barb proceeds to do every tourist thing possible (scuba diving, walking on hot coals and getting her labia pierced–which thankfully is not shown).
The two plots come together in the third act, where Barb and Star help Edgar thwart Fisherman’s plans. Andy Garcia shows up as the personification of Tommy Bahama, and Star has a heart-to-heart with a crab that sounds a lot like Morgan Freeman. Reba McEntire also shows up in a deus ex machina role as well, adding an exclamation point to the movie’s shift from broad comedy to surrealism.
The pace of the movie is frantic at times. Similar buddy comedies (Dumb & Dumber, 21 Jump Street) take a moment and let a funny bit sink in before bringing on the next one. There’s so much packed into the movie’s 1:47 runtime I suspect Wiig and Mumolo included every idea they had in the screenplay. The film’s many detours into weirdness became tiresome after a while and lessened the impact of the comedic material.
The biggest problem I had with B&S was the Frankenplot nature of the story. The plot with Barb and Star and Edgar is much better (and funnier) than the other one with Fisherman. A funny ninety-minute movie could easily have focused on the love triangle with Bart, Star and Edgar while skewering the overwhelming tackiness of Floridian seaside resorts. Fisherman, clearly a riff on Doctor Evil, could have worked if she was as funny as Doctor Evil. Unfortunately, she’s not and the movie’s comedic energy takes a definitive hit whenever she reappears. Aside from having a distinctive look and an impressive underground lair, Fisherman and her machinations are completely superfluous. The script does its best to tie the two plots together, but they never really mesh. As a character, Fisherman just isn’t fleshed out enough to warrant being in the movie.
As Barb and Star, Wiig and Mumolo are excellent comediennes, but their performances became grating after a while. Barb and Star sound the same, act the same and dress the same, making them essentially interchangeable. (When they talk over each other, their line readings are difficult to follow.) Some effort should have been made to make Barb and Star two distinct characters. The only noticeable differences between them is that Barb is widowed while Star is divorced. Fortunately, the movie splits them up at about forty-five minutes in, giving them their own adventures.
I’ve enjoyed many of Wiig’s performances over the years, going back to her funny cameos in Knocked Up (2007) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008). She hit it big with the fem-raunch comedy Bridesmaids (2011), then has gravitated towards semi-serious roles in films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), The Skeleton Twins (2014) and The Martian (2015). Her only noticeable missteps have been in Ghostbusters (2016) and WW84 (2020), two big-budget spectacles where her quirky acting and light delivery felt misplaced. She definitely decided to let her freak flag fly with this movie, though.
Jamie Dornan’s performance was quite an unexpected surprise. Known for his hunky good looks (hello, Christian Grey), his main function in B&S is to play the straight man to Wiig and Mumolo’s oddball characters. He nails the look of befuddlement required whenever Barb or Star say something completely incongruous. He also shows a talent for physical comedy as well, with his soulful ode to his tortured heart (and seagulls). Unlike Barb and Star, his character must be funny and relatable, and he pulls it off exceptionally well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him appearing in more comedies in the future.
Vanessa Bayer (SNL, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is hilarious as Talking Club overlord Debbie. I wish the movie had more time for her and her smiling dictator of a character. (If you’re not on time when the clock strikes 6:00 PM, you’re locked out of the meeting. If you suggest a topic not pulled from the Talking Jar, you must forfeit your dinner.) She’s a perfect comedic foil for the superficial Barb and Star, as well as the meek but horse-loving Deloris (Phyllis Smith, The Office). Given how easily Bayer steals every scene she’s in, it’s unfortunate that Wiig and Mumolo didn’t make her the villain instead of Fisherman. Perhaps that will be rectified if there’s a sequel.
The Hotel staff includes several standout supporting characters, including Michael Hitchcock as the decidedly impatient concierge Gary, Mark Jonathan Davis as lounge singer Richard Cheese (boobies!) and Ernesto Godoy as the banana hammock guy. Curiously, the only cameo that doesn’t work at all is Damon Wayans Jr.’s Darlie Bunkle. Wayans Jr. is a funny guy, but can’t do anything with the clunky, unfunny lines he’s given, and his entire character should have been left out.
Overall, Barb & Star is funny often enough to justify a viewing, preferably while under the influence of your favorite THC-infused product.