Of all the not-ready-for-primetime stars of Saturday Night Live who have gone on to successful movie careers, few have taken as circuitous a path as Kristen Wiig. Her hit film Bridesmaids, which she starred in and co-write, was released while she was still on the show. It grossed nearly $300 million and made her household name. Offered an opportunity to write and star in a Bridesmaids sequel, she demurred and threw herself into a series of small indie dramas, with names that probably don’t ring a bell: “Girl Most Likely,” “Hateship Loveship,” “Welcome to Me.” None were successes, either creatively or commercially.
She kept her comedy muscle working by taking small roles in “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” “Zoolander 2” and “The Martian.” The less said about her 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters,” the better. Only now in 2021 has she made the comedy follow-up her fans have been waiting for. It’s called “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” and it’s weird. Whereas “Bridesmaids” got its laughs by grounding its tragi-comic hijinx in real-world anxieties, “Barb and Star” is an exercise in pure comic absurdity.
It’s the story of two middle-aged single ladies (played by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who also co-wrote) whose exceedingly quiet midwestern existence -working in a department store and spending their evening at a “talking club” – is upended by a vacation to Florida, where they get caught up in a conspiracy enacted by a pigment-challenged evil genius (also played by Wiig) and her jacked male co-conspirator (Jamie Dornan) to kill everyone in town by way of genetically-mutated mosquitoes. Are you with me so far? Along the way, there is a musical number about seagulls, a talking crab that claims to be Morgan Freeman, and a cameo by a very well-known actor playing Tommy Bahama. There are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it throwaway gags, and running jokes that get funnier with every iteration. And lots of jokes about culottes.
With its exaggerated version of middle-American archetypes, it feels closer in spirit to the sketches Wiig anchored on “Saturday Night Live,” like the Target Lady or Sue, the lady who ruins all the surprises. Many SNL players have gone this route, adapting for the screen a type or even a specific character they played to great success on the show. Mike Myers had “Wayne’’s World” and “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” and Will Ferrell had “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” Heck, even Will Forte had “Macgruber.” All of these films, for better and for worse, feel like direct expressions of their star’s comedic sensibility. To make a film like this, regardless of how it lands with audiences or critics, is a personal statement and a profound artistic achievement.
It’s an opportunity the women of “Saturday Night Live” have rarely received. Consider the careers of Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Jan Hooks, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler. None got to make a film that reflected their precise style of comedy. Tina Fey managed to do it with TV’s “30 Rock” and maybe “Mean Girls,” but her success hinged on her proficiency as a writer not as a full-fledged comedy star. For Wiig, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a major triumph, a rare achievement for a female comedy star, and one of the weirdest, better times you’ll have at the movie this year.
“Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is now streaming wherever movies are streaming.