Amy Poehler’s new Netflix film, Wine Country, is, on the surface, a comedy about a bunch of SNL alums — Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch, Paula Pell, Tina Fey — visiting Napa Valley to celebrate Dratch’s character’s 50th birthday and their shared ascent into midlife. But unlike basically every other drunken comedy ever made, this one has experiences of womanhood baked into every layer. There’s no missing teeth, no tigers in the bathroom or chickens in the living room, no babies in the closet, no Mike Tyson. There are, however, knee replacements and divorce and loneliness and failing careers and workaholism and happy kids and crappy husbands and medical scares.
These women, who met when they were servers at a Chicago pizza joint in their early 20s, know each other so well, and rub up against each other in such a way, and have been dealing (and not dealing) with so many real life things they didn’t want to discuss over thousands of miles in group texts and Facebook chats, they slowly start to come undone when they get back together. Gasteyer’s Catherine is a super successful chef and entrepreneur. Rudolph’s Naomi is a happily married mom and wife with a voicemail from her doctor she can’t bring herself to listen to. Poehler’s Abby is a grizzled Leslie Knope. Dratch’s Rebecca is a therapist with a husband everyone hates. And Pell’s Val is a lesbian antique shop owner from Portland with a new set of knees and thirst for love. I’ll just let you enjoy Tina Fey’s character revelation on your own.
It’s all wine and good times and inside jokes and singing and flirting (by Val with a server named Jade) on their first night in Napa, but when Cherry Jones shows up to give an inspired performance as an erratic, misanthropic tarot reader during their Saturday hangover, things take a turn for testy. The more vineyards they visit, the more wine they drink, the more they individually unravel; and then begins their collective cracking.
Wine Country isn’t just womanhood and women’s friendships; it’s specifically middle age womanhood and friendships. One of the best scenes in the movie finds the gang at Jade’s art show. They’re drunk and surrounded by 20-year-olds talking about “context within context,” and how they should be invited to participate in the conversation without even a bare minimum understanding of the subject, and for sure what they should be feeling from all art is offended; and the whole thing just melts down into a hilarious generational confrontation where everyone ends up looking bad and Val tries to make the millennials understand where they’re coming from by explaining how, when she was a youth, she used to have to drive miles and miles to get her hands on lesbo porn, and now it’s so accessible!
These women aren’t just united by their shared experiences; they’re also united by the fact that they, you know, watch TV shows on TVs. And that they know what TV shows are.
I was thinking as I watched Wine Country about the last month of my own personal life. I was thinking about how my right breast looks like someone bit down on it really, really hard — no, wait, stay with me. My right breast looks like someone bit down on it really, really hard because last week I spent an entire day at the Dubin Breast Center at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan having mammogram after mammogram and ultrasound after ultrasound and then an MRI and then a biopsy to diagnosis one lump in my breast and another one in my armpit. I turned 40 in December and my mom had breast cancer when she was 38 and three weeks ago my annual breast screening for high risk patients ended in my doctor telling me they’d found a clearly defined nodule, an “area of real concern.”
The results of the biopsy were ultimately benign and all that’s left is this angry bite mark on my right breast. The weeks leading up to this bruise, though: I was keeping it together in every way, with everyone, except the women who make up the beating heart of my life. If I wasn’t shutting them down and out, I was lashing out, doubled down on an already unhealthy relationship to my work, looking for some kind of control anywhere.
That’s Wine Country. It’s improv funny and it’s physical comedy funny and it’s sight gag funny and it’s punny funny — and it’s a story about how sometimes our little personality quirks can only be distilled into their truest form and made manifest as our lurking anxieties and insecurities and maladaptive coping mechanisms when we’re in the company of the women who love us best and most. Because they’re the only ones willing or able to look past their hurt and annoyance and see our wildest hopes and raging fears, because they understand them, because they feel them too.