Anyone – gal or guy – who has ever experienced the pleasure of pouring their heart and soul into a wine-themed outing will surely find themselves instinctively drawn to any film like Wine Country. In my time, I’ve attended a few wine-tasting events and trips – some classy, some less so. There’s always lots of swirling, unschooled talk of heady notes, and all that jazz. My personal favourite was a wobbly bike tour around some of New Zealand’s boutique wineries. The grazed knee I returned with that day said it all.
So, with all this quaffing under my boozy belt, it’s clear why Wine Country might appeal to me. The day after a killer Goon and Coon night with some Aussie buds, I parked myself on the sofa and settled in to consume Amy Poehler’s debut feature. Rough as a badger’s arse, I was keen for some easy viewing. And this comedy, about a group of middle-aged women on a wine-tasting tour in California’s Napa Valley, seemed like just the right pairing for my mood. It was, in fact, not. My sommelier Netflix got it so wildly wrong on this occasion.
Wine Country sets off on the right path. First, we meet Abby (Poehler), the kingpin of this tale. Pal Rebecca (Rachel Dratch) is turning 50, and what better excuse to get the old gang together? They all come for a good time – Catherine (Ana Gasteyer), Naomi (Maya Rudolph), Val (Paula Pell), and Jenny (Emily Spivey). Unbeknownst to them though, Abby just got fired. She’s filled the void by meticulously planning the itinerary and doesn’t take kindly to any deviations. The thing is, the other ladies have their own issues – therapist Rebecca has an odious husband nobody cares for; successful businesswoman Catherine feels left out as she negotiates a new venture; busy mum Naomi is avoiding some big test results from her doctor; lonely lesbian Val is on the hunt for love; and writer Jenny is totally disenchanted with existence. We’re also treated to Tina Fey as Tammy, the intense owner of the swanky Airbnb property Abby arranges – who kindly throws in womanizing driver-cum-chef Devon (Jason Schwartzman).
That all sounds pretty damned delicious, doesn’t it? Sadly, as the film’s bottle slowly begins to empty, Liz Cackowski and Emily Spivey’s plot loses itself in Napa’s sprawling vineyards. We shadow the group as they catch up, before moving from one item on Abby’s exacting programme to the next. When Catherine casually busts out a stash of MDMA and everyone politely declines, we’re certain Wine Country isn’t an all-female, go-hard-or-go-home take on The Hangover. And, with expectations entirely subverted, we breathe a sigh of relief that full-bodied buffoonery isn’t on the wine list. Simultaneously, we feel let down, because the soporific humour in its place – a corked blend of insipid jokes and marginally more palatable physical comedy – is in the same league as a nasty convenience store vino collapso.
Oddly, this comedy’s saving grace is in its drama, and this is where Poehler’s cast – in various combinations – shine. You may come for the laughs, but you’ll likely stay for the compelling ways the characters deal with their individual woes. That said, a couple of storylines are a tad ridiculous they’ll likely cause a frown or two. A great example is a balls-to-the-wall vilification of millennials at an art show hosted by Val’s much younger love interest Jade (Maya Erskine), which the millennials themselves confuse for an installation. Of course they do.
With the hilarious Poehler as its vintner, Wine Country seemed destined for a place on the top shelf alongside the Sancerre and the Barolo. Sadly, after popping it open and gulping down a good mouthful, we find it has the intensity of a sloth, the complexity of a chicken nugget, and balance of Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen’s love child. Now, this disappointment isn’t quite fit only for the sink, but it is fair to consign it to the dustier bottom shelves alongside the cheap cooking wines. If this rookie director decides to come at us with a second offering soon, let’s pin our hopes on something a little finer.