Two forty-something women take a vacation to Florida’s Vista Del Mar, where they get mixed up in a plot to kill everyone in the town.
Unemployed, underqualified, and over-age, Barb’s hopeful comment to best friend and housemate Star that “This town is full of places looking to hire women in their 40s!” was my first laugh-out-loud moment of Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar, though luckily it was also the only hollow one of the whole film.
Mostly this is a hilarious, delightfully silly, warm and moving film, and a paean to middle-aged ladies and their friendships: the solid supports through the often tumultuous ups and down of what we hope are only our middle years.
Oh yes and hold onto your big knickers, my fellow middle-aged, menopausal avengers, you’re about to discover you’ve been pronouncing “culottes” wrong your whole lives.
The one thing I didn’t like about this movie was its mockery towards culottes, though they do later have a key role in this story. And to be fair Barb and Star’s versions (elasticated, retina-burning, probably nylon) aren’t the ones most stylish 40-somethings – us, basically – would wear.
Imagine Shirley Valentine crossed with Austin Powers with songs channelling the same mix of earnestness and sex obsession as last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, and that’s Barb And Star. There’s even a touch of midlife Thelma and Louise about them, as they risk death together to do what is right, their friendship more important even than survival.
Annie Mumolo is Barb and Kristen Wiig is Star (they also co-wrote the screenplay), two women who sleep in twin beds and work at the same furniture store, where they spend most of the time chatting on the sofa they should be selling.
Their conversations are so quickfire one is always talking just before the first has finished, like an over-edited podcast.
But then they’re told the store is closing. As a decade’s worth of joy de vivre seeps out of them on their walk home, they bump into their friend Mickey, looking gloriously tanned and bouncy and singing the praises of Florida’s Vista Del Mar resort.
It is, Mickey tells them, “for people like us. Midlifers who still like to strut past the pool and stop the party dead in its tracks with a tube top and full jewellery,” and I can tell you now I haven’t felt so seen since the really annoying mum popped up in Lady Bird.
Barb is unconvinced by Star’s suggestion they go on holiday there, until Star reminds her as they swap anecdotes that “All of our stories, they’re from the past. We don’t have any stories from now.” Worse than that, they have both lost their “shimmer”. (Like many films made pre-COVID and only released now, there are moments that bring home how many of us feel: missing a year of unmade memories yet somehow looking a decade older.)
Soon they are pitching up at the candifloss-hued hotel (strapline: “where luxury meets coconuts”), and visiting the bar for cocktails, meeting gorgeous, lovelorn, lost soul Edgar Paget (Jamie Dornan, pitch-perfect and with perfect pitch, whose singing ability and pastels make him a shoo-in for Sonny Crockett if they ever reboot Miami Vice as a musical).
The last time I saw Florida on screen it was being unexpectedly incinerated by a stray lump of space rock in Greenland. I’m hopeful these two films are taking place in the same cinematic universe, which adds a certain poignancy to the ladies’ trip as they get drunk with Jamie Dornan and have sex with Jamie Dornan. What a way to go, and while wearing beige granny pants as well.
Actually the third best thing about Barb & Star – after Edgar singing “seagulls in the sand can you hear my prayer” while dancing along the beach, and their threesome – is that neither over-permed, polyester-wearing woman has to undergo some kind of transformation or glow-up to nab him, and they never question that he fancies them. Admittedly those culottes probably make fantastic sex easier, what with the elastic waist, and the nylon creating a genuine electric frisson; but both women expect to have space in the world, and to be seen.
Edgar is there for nefarious reasons, an agent of evil lady doctor Dr Lady, though she’s listed in the credits as Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Kristen Wiig). Black of bob and very white of skin, Dr Lady is plotting from her high-tech underground lair to murder the inhabitants of Vista Del Mar. She’s very 1960s with her futuristic fashion, clever tween sidekick Yoyo (Reyn Doi) and goggle-like glasses (though did we have Doctress Evils back then? For once I am too young to remember).
That cartoonish ’60s vibe, the bright colours and pleasantness fit well with the general niceness of everyone, underneath. I particularly liked the dimwitted agent Darlie Bunkle (Damon Wayans Jnr), a man who is to secret-keeping what Barb and Star are to minimalism.
Plot lines are surprisingly believable (Dr Lady’s reason for wanting to kill the whole town) and not at all (Barb and Star don’t have smartphones? Really?!) Back stories are explained in great detail by one character to another. Daringly, it adds an extra ten minutes to the standard “90 minute comedy” rule and still comes out on top.
Wiig and Mumolo are terrific as the best friends, taking the plunge, rocking the boat, knowing it might destabilise their friendship. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, whether in love or paragliding.
And if, like Barb and Star, you feel somewhere along your fifth decade you too have lost your sparkle, take heart from the mystical pep talk from an uncredited character who looks suspiciously like Andy Garcia: “It is time to mount the wind and ride it with the fierceness of a hippopotamus… Remember your shimmer is on the horizon”.
If you missed any of it, check out my plot-spoiler article: Mosquito bites and water sprites in Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar is available on various platforms including:
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