Kristen Wiig's belated Bridesmaids follow-up
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar comes out almost 10 years after the smash hit put her on a superstar trajectory
Kristen Wiig has a new movie out this weekend, which serves as a reminder of a startling fact: Bridesmaids turns 10 years old in just a few months. Has it really been a decade since Wiig had her big-screen breakthrough? Though the title and posters for that 2011 comedy made it seem like a Hangover-style ensemble, Wiig was dead center for the smash hit it turned into. Not only did she play the lead role of a thirtysomething woman whose disappointments compound when her best friend gets engaged, she co-wrote the script with her friend and collaborator Annie Mumolo. Wiig was clearly ready to vault from amusing bit parts in Judd Apatow-produced movies into her own starring vehicles.
Amazingly, this never quite happened. At first, it seemed like Wiig was simply cooling her jets and looking over offers. She still had another year at Saturday Night Live, and her first post-Bridesmaids projects were a mix of indie dramedies (Girl Most Likely; Hateship, Loveship; Welcome to Me) giving her the opportunity to stretch, and love-interest roles in big-name comedies (opposite Steve Carell in Anchorman 2 and Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), presumably giving her the opportunity to have some fun.
But as time went on, a true Bridesmaids follow-up or companion piece never materialized. She reunited with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and co-star Melissa McCarthy for a Ghostbusters reboot in 2016, but that didn't feel like Wiig's showcase for any number of reasons: It was a brand-name special effects movie; because of that, toxic fanboys successfully shifted the conversation around the film; Wiig's part was more straight woman than comic dynamo; and by that point, McCarthy was arguably a bigger box office draw. After Ghostbusters fizzled out, Wiig continued to work steadily, taking supporting parts for directors like Darren Aronofsky, Alexander Payne, and Richard Linklater, and even doing the obligatory superhero project with last year's Wonder Woman 1984. Clearly, she wasn't reluctant to say yes to new projects. Yet there arguably hasn't been a new, mainstream "Kristen Wiig movie" in years. It's been difficult to tell whether Wiig was holding back on boarding a major vehicle, or whether Hollywood was working its dark magic, where even famous women aren't often given the same leeway as their male counterparts. Was McCarthy's post-Bridesmaids ascent considered that film's single allotted bump?
Regardless of the reasons, 10 years without a big Kristen Wiig comedy makes her new film, this weekend's new VOD release Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, feel particularly notable. It's her first screenwriting credit since Bridesmaids, once again shared with Mumolo, who fully co-stars this time around. (She had a bit part in the earlier film.) It's also, remarkably, Wiig's first real broad comedy as a star.
Yes, Bridesmaids has plenty of big comic set pieces. But it's also a relatively grounded movie in the mold of Apatow, who produced it. (Paul Feig's subsequent non-Apatow comedies like The Heat and Spy, both with McCarthy, would go a little further.) Much of the humor comes from dialogue, character, and improvisations that may be crazy in their text but are naturalistic in their delivery style. The movie has grace notes, like the scene where Wiig's character carefully and sadly bakes herself a single cupcake as a tiny monument to her failed bakery, that would be out of place in a movie like Barb and Star.
Then again, maybe nothing would be out of place in Barb and Star; it's weird and proudly silly in a way more closely associated with male SNL stars like Will Ferrell (Anchorman), Mike Myers (Austin Powers), or Will Forte (MacGruber). Wiig and Mumolo play fortysomething besties from Nebraska who go on their first-ever vacation, and become involved with an outlandish revenge plot led by a bizarre villain (also Wiig) and her smitten right-hand man (Jamie Dornan, from Fifty Shades of Grey). While the title characters have a sweet-natured and affectionate friendship designed for maximum endearment, they're also outrageous caricatures. Like Ron Burgundy or Austin Powers, they're armed with vocal exaggerations and hairdos that both obscure Wiig's "normal" appearance and allow her a cartoony form of self-expression.
In some ways, this is a brighter-colored, gag-heavier version of a favored Wiig narrative, about a woman who's been repeatedly knocked down taking back some control of her life. It's not unusual to see similar stories and character types emerge in a comic actor's career, but in retrospect it's a little strange that Wiig's scrappy indie versions came before this one. In the post-Bridesmaids years, the comedy that best captured her funny-sad-awkward sensibility was arguably 2014's little-seen Welcome to Me, where she played a mentally unstable woman who uses lottery winnings to finance her own television show. It played a little like an SNL sketch, but the kind that airs last, a few minutes before 1 a.m., where the show often takes some of its weirder chances. And ultimately, Welcome to Me had a lot more psychological realism than a comedy sketch.
In an indirect way, it may be her SNL connection that keeps Wiig's other films tethered to the reality she happily rejects in Barb and Star. Typical SNL stints used to last four or five seasons; Wiig was there for a now-standard seven, and remained close to the show afterward, with multiple hosting gigs and cameos serving as an ongoing comic outlet. Comedians of the past decade-plus have generally felt less reluctance to shuttle back and forth between movies and TV, which for Wiig has meant working on shows like The Last Man on Earth, the Wet Hot American Summer prequel and sequel series, and Bless the Harts, an animated sitcom for which she currently voices a lead role. In other words, she has plenty of space to go silly on TV, while saving movies for bigger departures from that wheelhouse. It's also possible that she's encountering a gender-related disparity in comedy. Few of the most talented SNL ladies have launched a Mike Myers-style big-screen showcase; there's no Blues Brothers or Wayne's World equivalent for Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, or even Wiig's contemporaries, like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. Wiig is arguably the biggest star to emerge from SNL since Ferrell, and while she shares with him a seeming willingness to follow her comic muse (they co-starred in a straight-faced Lifetime Movie parody together, apparently just for fun; he's also a producer on Barb and Star), she has less visible authorship on her filmography.
This makes Barb and Star a little bittersweet; the movie itself is funny, and prompts speculation about what other comedies Wiig might have made if she and Mumolo had been working together for the past decade. But there's also something touching about Wiig finding her way into such extravagant silliness after pursuing the more serious side of Bridesmaids. At a time when plenty of comic actors might start to feel burnt out, she seems revitalized, and ready to keep doing whatever she wants.