Kristen Wiig played plenty of strange, baffling characters on Saturday Night Live, but her movie career has been focused more on grounded roles, even in broad comedies like Bridesmaids or Ghostbusters. That changes with Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar, starring and written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who also co-wrote Bridesmaids). This is Wiig’s Austin Powers or Zoolander or MacGruber, a bizarre, ridiculous movie that feels like an overgrown comedy sketch, and doesn’t really have enough comedic material to sustain a feature film. And like Austin Powers, it stars Wiig in dual roles, as both the hero and the villain.
Your enjoyment of Barb and Star will largely depend on whether you find the title characters endearing or annoying (I found them to be a little bit of both). Best friends and roommates Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) are middle-aged Midwesterners, sort of the human embodiment of mom jeans (although they’re not moms). They live in a sleepy Nebraska town, work their dream jobs at a furniture store, and dress like they should be starring in a 1980s family sitcom, with big feathered hair and ugly patterned sweaters. When the furniture store shuts down, their ideal lives are shattered, and they latch onto the idea of a blissful Florida vacation after hearing about the idyllic Vista del Mar from a tanned and rested neighbor.
Meanwhile, in a storyline that seems like it was lifted from one Robert Rodriguez’s garish kid-oriented sci-fi movies, the evil villain Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also Wiig) has launched an elaborate revenge plot against the residents of Vista del Mar, which involves sending her henchman Edgar (Jamie Dornan) to plant a receiver that will attract a swarm of genetically modified deadly mosquitoes. Disguised as a tourist, Edgar meets Barb and Star at the hotel bar, and he soon begins a torrid affair with Star, despite being deeply in love with his boss (who doesn’t return his affections).
The absurd plot is mostly an excuse for the actors to cut loose and act silly, and Dornan, known for serious fare like the Fifty Shades of Grey series, takes full advantage of the opportunity to play with his heartthrob image. Mumolo and Wiig don’t define Barb and Star much beyond their aw-shucks accents and unshakable friendship, but that allows for the weirder supporting characters to take the spotlight, including Sharon, who looks like a cross between Dr. Evil and a geisha. Wiig, Mumolo and director Josh Greenbaum fill the movie with oddball background players, including Sharon’s pudgy kid assistant Yoyo (Reyn Doi), unsuccessfully mysterious assassin Darlie Bunkle (Damon Wayans Jr.) and the judgmental members of Barb and Star’s hometown “talking club” (Vanessa Bayer, Phyllis Smith, Rose Abdoo and Fortune Feimster).
There are big musical numbers and fast-paced chase sequences, plus a talking crab having an existential crisis. The movie is packed with nonstop jokes, only about half of which actually land, but Wiig and Mumolo are clearly not holding back, throwing in every inexplicable dumb idea they can think of. Even if you don’t find Barb and Star funny, it’s tough not to marvel at its boldness, especially from a star like Wiig who’s mostly transitioned into respectable, semi-serious roles. This is the kind of movie that would be a giant box-office flop if it were released to theaters as originally planned, but maybe going straight to VOD is the best place for it. Most viewers will probably find it off-putting and irritating, but people on the right wavelength will be putting together their Barb and Star Halloween costumes before the end credits roll.