1 Hr., 32 Mins.
Someone Great / Wine Country May 28, 2019
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
been directed by Amy Poehler — who also leads the ensemble — had been written by Saturday Night Live alumni Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski, and starred a murderer’s row comprising Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Spivey, and Paula Pell, I automatically assumed I’d perhaps be in for a comic delicacy. This is hardly the first time this cast and crew have worked together, after all.
If their collaborations have been delectable in the past, why wouldn’t they be now? Then again, movies so star-studded and immediately assumed to be uproarious tend to be let-downs. Look at the mostly rollicking but still bloated It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), the racing comedy The Cannonball Run (1981), or the omnibus film Movie 43 (2013). Infer that dazzling casts and creators will immediately make the feature of your dreams and you run the risk of disappointment. Still, you watch Wine Country, which makes for a very uneasy combination of a farce and a midlife-crisis drama, and you can’t help but wonder how this many top-notch comediennes got together and made a movie that isn’t so much as perfunctorily funny.
In Wine Country, Poehler stars as Abby, a middle-aged, newly unemployed woman who, amid the fog of joblessness, has decided to take it upon herself to plan a rather extravagant birthday celebration for her friend Rebecca (Dratch), who’s turning 50 soon. Rebecca says she wants something low-key. But Abby thinks, and not just because she has nothing else to do, that this milestone needs to really feel like a milestone. Unprompted, she locks down a palatial house in Napa Valley, gathers their mutual friends, and blueprints the entirety of a weekend, most of which will be defined by winery tours.
Wine Country is rather episodic, watching as the friends waffle from one misadventure to the next. The tone gets increasingly fraught as the end of the trip gets closer and the women have to face the hard truths waiting for them back home. Scenes have potential. A possible love interest of the Pell character is an artist, only the exhibit to which she invites the friends is really just a bunch of pop-art-style paintings of Fran Drescher. The pals, tuckered out at the top of a hill one afternoon, think “why not” and roll down it like schoolchildren. But only two — one involving Rudolph, a paragon of simulated inebriation, drunkenly serenading Rebecca, the other a mordant scene in which Cherry Jones, playing a psychic, tells fortunes — induce real laughter. Each character is given a life problem by which they will come to be defined in the movie. Gasteyer is a workaholic who’s convinced that her friends secretly hate her; Rudolph is waiting for medical-test results she’s worried will give her less-than-desirable answers; Dratch’s marriage is falling apart. But they’re little explored. Even the friendships in the film have a flimsiness to them: we have such scanty ideas of the pasts of these women and what they mean to each other that I stitched together a Mystic Pizza (1988) sort of scenario in my mind to fill in the blanks.
That the film is strikingly unfunny and frail in most other places further hurts the chemistry of the actresses, who, because they’re playing half-written characters, struggle to convince us that they’re lifelong friends — ironic considering we know that, once the cameras are shut off, they actually are. Hopefully a gag reel or behind-the-scenes footage is released: Either would satisfy more than the movie. If entwined, maybe they could even function as a replacement.
Someone Great: B
Wine Country: C-
his sort of thinking didn’t apply beforehand to Wine Country (2019), though. I thought I’d be getting something great but ended up with something pleasant, diverted until fleeting moments where I sat back and wondered where it all went wrong.
When I, like most of the general population, saw that Wine Country had
the contributions from Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden made it feel substantive. And in Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great (2019), a new Netflix quasi-rom-com about a woman recovering from a painfully fresh breakup, things become much more evocative thanks to musical invocations of Lizzo, Lorde, Frank Ocean, and others. For many, especially young millennials and older Gen-Zers, this movie might come to have sentimental value down the line — a feature that propelled the songs that really meant something to them during a pivotal period in their lives.
It’s fitting that Someone Great emphasize a soundtrack. Its heroine, a spirited, almost-30-year-old named Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), is a successful music journalist, and one far past her $20-a-blog-post days. Music, for her, is all-encompassing — and, in the film, takes on an even bigger emotional meaning. It connects itself to two big life changes that, for all intents and purposes, crash into each other.
As Someone Great begins, Jenny and her boyfriend of nine years, Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), break up. Jenny, who’s based in New York City, has also just accepted a job at Rolling Stone, prompting a move to California. Her emotions, then, are unsurprisingly kaleidoscopic when we first meet her; the mixture of a major high and a crushing low have rendered her vulnerable as a rag doll. When music pops up, it works as an epitome of what she's is feeling at that moment — usually a torrential sort of sadness. “I have emotional motion sickness,” Phoebe Bridgers warbles on the soundtrack. The line ends up taking on the form of a thesis statement for our heroine.
Someone Great functions as both a breakup movie and a last-hurrah movie. Nate and Jenny separate just before she’s due to depart for San Francisco, which provides even more of an incentive for her and her two best friends, Blair and Erin (Brittany Snow and DeWanda Wise), to have a memorable last night together. (Just as much as the friend group wants Jenny to get out of her understandable funk, they also pine for the return of the go-for-broke, buzzed “bad” Blair, the drunk alter ego of the clique's leading square.) They figure the best way to celebrate is to get tickets to Neon Classic, a prestigious concert series. Jenny initially thinks she can finagle passes through Rolling Stone, but, after the event proves itself even too exclusive for them, the friends have to pinball from acquaintance to acquaintance, trying to get their mitts on tickets.
The misadventures aren’t quite as zany as I believe Robinson, who also wrote the film, thinks they are, but they at least come with charming-enough cameos from Jaboukie Young-White, RuPaul, and Rosario Dawson, who, in a nicely overwrought twist, all veer into caricatured territories. Young-White’s a Gen-Z goofball with a male pooch named Barbra Streisand, RuPaul’s a cartoonishly oracular drug dealer, and Dawson is an exaggeratedly chichi friend of Nate’s. When the friends aren’t bumping into side characters like this or getting themselves into trouble, we usually get sucked into a flashback. Jenny might touch a Coke bottle, stand at a certain angle in the park, or hear the opening notes of a tune at a bodega and get sucked into a dreamy, neon-soaked memory in which she and Nate are still in the throes of movie love.
Netflix, with the recent successes of 2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Set It Up, seems to be the film distributor most interested in saving the not-so-long-ago waning rom-com these days. Not every endeavor has been created equal, though. Last year’s The Kissing Booth, despite earning scores of fans in teenage girls, was critically received the same way lukewarm water is by a parched throat. Subsequent attempts to make the co-star of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Noah Centineo, who at one time seemed like his generation’s Michael Schoeffling, break big have fared anticlimactically (Sierra Burgess is a Loser, 2018; The Perfect Date, 2019). Someone Great sits somewhere between a great and a passable Netflix genre entry. Its scenes have a particular zip to them that convinces us that we’re really seeing a band of friends trying to create memories that will one day be talked about in the same way Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton remember that one Ibiza trip. But none are particularly risky or risibly funny.
Rodriguez tends to be a little overzealous — a hurricane who’s suasive when she’s experiencing Bridgers’ brand of emotional motion sickness but a touch grating when she’s temporarily out of a thicket of sadness. But her co-stars, namely Snow and Wise, are out-and-out charmers. I’ve always liked the google-eyed Snow, who, no matter the character, can conjure a humanity that reminds me of the kind mastered by Goldie Hawn. She can seamlessly move to and fro the dark and the light without a hitch.
But the ebullient Wise, playing a lesbian who’s struggling to be as confident in her romantic undertakings as she is in most other areas of her life, is the real revelation in the movie. Like Snow, she deftly shape-shifts as needed to complement the dramatic and the comic. This especially shines through at the end of the film when, during a heartfelt-but-still-funny one-on-one with Snow, Wise does this almost-magical thing where she fastens together vulnerability and levity as if she were among the greatest of tragicomic characters. “If I grow up, it means I have to change everything,” she exclaims. “Everything’s already fucking changing Blair. Jenny’s leaving!” She pauses, either realizing that she doesn’t want to reveal more of her worries or that her malaise is actually more intangible than she thought. Then she goes back to something Snow said earlier about adulthood — about how a signal that you’re really in your 30s is that getting up early to enjoy the farmers market becomes a thrill. “And actually, the farmers market sounds really, really like assuring and coddling and comforting right now. Like, is there one tomorrow?”
This moment puts in a nutshell what Someone Great does consistently well: combining the scariness of quarter-life change with slapstick comedy. I wish the movie had more of the caustic wit of Set It Up or the out-and-proud self-awareness of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; it’s a lot of fun, and does a good job of persuasively developing a diverse friend group in a super-brief window. (Not so much the romance, though; Stanfield, his usual sleepy self, clashes with the frequent sprightliness of Rodriguez.) But aside from the terrific soundtrack, which potentially has staying power, I doubt Someone Great will loiter in the memory for most of its viewers. Like so many low-stakes Netflix movies, it feels made, mostly, for a night in, where one really only hopes to be diverted for a couple of hours. Getting something great isn't bound to be more than a pleasant surprise.
great soundtrack can improve the most substandard of romantic comedies. Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986), about a stiff who falls for a black-bobbed wild child, is rocky. But it’s found a lasting place in my heart because the action is backed by the best of The Motels, Timbuk 3, and Fine Young Cannibals. Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), which merges Seattle’s grunge and dating scenes, is a hair slight. But