by Ken Bakely
Circling back to some movies from the first half of the year with my reviews of two comedies, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and Werewolves Within.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Josh Greenbaum’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is a movie that boasts a plot that often seems complicated to a startling degree, but this is almost a joke in and of itself. Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig’s script piles the story high, but the more it does, the less the specifics matter – all of it forms the movie’s real core, an opportunity to see its cast explore a breezy, frantic, and casually absurd world, where impromptu musical numbers and culottes with quasi-magical properties are not out of the ordinary. Mumolo and Wiig play Barb and Star, respectively, two lifelong best friends who depart their Nebraska suburb for a getaway in the pastel-colored resort town of Vista Del Mar, Florida. They quickly encounter a handsome stranger named Edgar (Jamie Dornan), which causes a challenge to their friendship (Star has begun a fling with Edgar, which she tries to hide from Barb). What’s more, handsome strangers seem to often harbor secrets: Edgar is the (eventually reluctant) henchman of Sharon (also Wiig), a chalk-white supervillain planning apocalyptic revenge on Vista Del Mar as retribution for a childhood humiliation she suffered there. She is about to unleash a swarm of genetically modified mosquitoes that will kill everyone unlucky enough to be there, and Barb and Star are soon plunged into the middle of this peril.
It’s all part of the fun to watch the madcap storyline swing wildly back and forth, as another piece of the gentle though unhinged approach that the movie takes. But it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie becoming too lost in its controlled chaos and instead feeling rudderless. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, therefore, relies largely on the strength of its cast to keep the movie afloat – and with Wiig and Mumolo starring, the film is in more than capable hands. Barb and Star are as exaggerated as the rest of the movie – what with their thick Midwestern dialects and the peculiarities of their rapport with each other – but never feel vacant or too caricaturish to have as protagonists. The rest of the ensemble is uniformly sharp; in particular, Dornan is fun as Edgar, whose confused allegiance serves as the basis for some excellent business. Combined with the film’s colorful and crisp appearance, there’s always a feeling of pure energy and enthusiasm that drives the movie at some level; even when its 107-minute runtime can feel a little long to sustain a comedy so reliant on transitory bits and so purposefully light on organized storytelling, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar still soars on the merits of its talented cast and steady stream of jokes moving at a marvelously quick clip.
Josh Rubens’ Werewolves Within also takes us to a quirky town, but here, it’s the snowy, forested community of Beaverfield. Finn (Sam Richardson) is a peculiarly unassertive ranger newly assigned to the area, just as Sam (Wayne Duvall), a fossil fuel mogul, is trying to convince the tiny town to approve the construction of a pipeline in the area. Finn is shown around the area by Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), a friendly postal carrier who seems to know everything about everybody, and there seem to be many opposite personalities. Contrast Sam with environmental scientist Jane (Rebecca Henderson), or two rather different couples: the right-wing Trisha (Michaela Watkins) and Pete (Michael Chernus), with Devon (Cheyenne Jackson) and Joaquim (Harvey Guillén), liberal city transplants wealthy off tech money. This introduction proves useful when a mighty blizzard traps many of them inside the same lodge, just as a mysterious, sinister somebody has begun picking off pets and people under the cloak of the wild elements outside. Politics – both ideological and personal – come to dominate the group as they attempt to discern who is responsible for the chaos. After a point, it doesn’t even appear that the killer is human. The stakes rise and no single hypothesis seems to explain the exceedingly strange – and exceedingly dangerous – events enrapturing this jagged grouping.
The film, based on a Mafia-style video game of the same name, captures the gradual deducing of its source format. Mishna Wolff’s script cloisters her characters and turns them against each other (not that they needed much help in that department). Werewolves Within is at its sharpest and funniest as the cast carry the hyperbolic events to further heights – much of the humor simply comes from eccentric characters reacting to already absurd situations – but is less successful when it comes to sustaining this energy throughout. To put it another way, Rubens’ direction is clear and spritely early on, giving Beaverfield a strong sense of place and laying out the pieces for what’s to come, but much murkier in keeping things together once things are set into motion. The film is a comedy with a definite horror tinge, but few attempts at genuine suspense feel anything other than obligatory; moreover, the plotting is too light (by design) to support its own fleeting efforts to comment on the effects of social divisions through its squabbling and scheming characters. Werewolves Within is an entertaining movie, and never feels truly lost within itself. But it ultimately runs on the thinner side of its potential, achieving much but never quite rising to the highest levels it reaches for.