Over the years, “wine mom” has developed into something of a derogatory term—a dismissive catch-all for middle-aged, lily-white, affluent suburban women and the chardonnay they consume by the gallon. The new Netflix comedy Wine Country marks the point where the stereotype comes full circle: Directed by and costarring Amy Poehler alongside a quintet of SNL compatriots, Wine Country is effectively a 100-minute reappropriation of the “wine mom” label. Not all of its six protagonists are moms, but each and every one of them enjoys a robust merlot and the lack of inhibition that comes with it. They’re courting your laughs, but the ones that come from sympathy, not derision.
Along with the cheerleading comedy Poms, Wine Country is one of two movies released last weekend to center the platonic bonds among a group of older women. An entire generation separates their heroines; Wine Country follows a getaway on the occasion of a 50th birthday, while Poms is set in a Georgia retirement community. Still, the distinct phases of life captured in each film don’t set them apart so much as underscore just how many experiences are lumped together, and subsequently ignored, by the overbroad designation of “women over 45.” Besides, Poms and Wine Country share a distinctive M.O.: take a set-up that reads like a punch line at its characters’ expense, then flip the joke by showing the fallout from their perspective.
Bolstered by supporting turns from Maya Rudolph, Paula Pell, Ana Gasteyer, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and, in a relatively rare turn in front of the camera, writer Emily Spivey, Wine Country’s bona fides need no introduction. These women have been working together in various combinations for decades, and you’ll be tuning in to see them reunite now that they’ve acquired the industry capital to do so on their own terms. (Wine Country marks Poehler’s feature directorial debut and was produced by her Paper Kite Productions.) Poms, on the other hand, has a lineage that places it within a particular strain of post-Bridesmaids hangout flicks. The film itself is anchored by Diane Keaton, directed by Zara Hayes, and cowritten by Hayes and Shane Atkinson. The posters, however, cite some additional influences: “from the studio that brought you Bad Moms and the producers of Book Club.”
Like these predecessors, Poms walks a delicate line between subverting sexist cliché and mining it for easy laughs. Bad Moms had mixed success creatively, but flourished enough at the box office to spawn a mini franchise complete with Christmas-themed sequel. Book Club, meanwhile, was one of last year’s great surprises, doubling down on its premise of sex-starved older ladies titillating themselves with Fifty Shades of Grey until it became a far more nuanced depiction of female sexuality than its purported inspiration. As with Bridesmaids before them, neither of these efforts sparked a sudden resurgence in star-driven, female-led comedies for adults, despite their proven ability to earn back their budget several times over. But they’ve contributed to a world that offers multiple options in this genre on the same weekend, which is a start.
Wine Country, too, contains distinct traces of these empowerment farces. Thanks to its perch on Netflix, however, it also fits comfortably into another, deeply 2019 school of entertainment: the made-for-streaming, rom-com-adjacent diversion, designed to be queued up by a recommendation algorithm directly after Someone Great, or vice versa. In a review of Ibiza, an early entrant in this rapidly diversifying canon, Vulture’s Emily Yoshida described the end result as “more like watching a Snapchat story than a movie,” comprised almost entirely of “a series of jokes and ‘you had to be there’ incidents.” This intended criticism is an effective summary of Wine Country’s deliberate M.O., stringing together scheduled song-and-dance breaks, bits of physical comedy, and parodies of wine culture clearly informed by experience with a low-stakes plot about a group of friends on vacation. The theater Netflix booked for the advance screening I attended had couches in lieu of seats; I had the distinct feeling I was watching Wine Country as it was designed to be consumed.
Audiences lured in by this cast will already be familiar with the pleasures of watching Gasteyer and Fey shoot the shit in a bar, or Poehler play the type A, micromanaging straight woman. What Wine Country adds to the already well-established charisma of its stars is a strain of humor unabashedly rooted in its their maturity, which cowriters Spivey and Liz Cackowski view as an opportunity in lieu of an inconvenience. Much of Wine Country’s humor consists of what could be termed “Activia slapstick.” Poehler’s trip ringleader sleeps with a CPAP machine. There’s a recurring gag centered on Pell’s surgically replaced knees and the physical feats they enable. The entire climactic sequence is instigated by Dratch’s throwing out her back. None of this is off-brand for the group that gave us “Mom Jeans” and “Kotex Classic,” but experience has only broadened their knowledge base. The clique even has a catchphrase, “Things we say now,” invoked whenever the physical toll of age comes up in conversation—which is often.
As instrumental as age is to Wine Country’s jokes, it’s also integral to the more grounded parts of its story. The movie’s fictional clique ostensibly met while waitressing at a Chicago pizzeria, an unnecessarily high-concept backstory that largely serves to justify a handful of set pieces. It’s still fun to hear a set that includes multiple Second City alumnae reference a town that really was integral to their real-life origin myths. Wine Country also does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out the complicated, very adult dynamics between individual characters in a cast that risks overcrowding. Spivey and Rudolph, who play the two parents, bond over their exhaustion; an intriguing tension develops between Rudolph and Gasteyer’s high-powered chain restaurant maven. Failed marriages, drifting friendships, and professional crossroads furnish the subplots, quietly illustrating that these are grown-ups with the problems to match.
With an unconvincingly broad turn from Fey as the vacation rental’s owner and a setting that recalls 30 Rock’s Barefoot Contessa fantasy, Wine Country opens itself up to charges of self-indulgence it never bothers to evade. After all, how often are female performers in their 40s and 50s given the chance to indulge themselves? Less only than those in their 70s and 80s, a gap Poms does its sweet, winning best to rectify. Poms shares many of Wine Country’s themes while also heightening them; here, bad backs become failing hips and broken bones, while the 20-somethings who serve as Wine Country’s younger foils become literal high school mean girls. (Fittingly, the press tour has produced one of the best and pettiest celebrity spats in recent memory, between Jacki Weaver and Anjelica Huston. Huston has since apologized.)
With a getting-the-gang together concept instigated by the arrival of Keaton’s misanthropic New Yorker with a secret cancer diagnosis and a long-buried desire to lead some cheers, Poms is less interested in the details of its friendships than Wine Country. Given the relative lack of a shared history between its leads, this might be inevitable; Weaver, Pam Grier, and Rhea Perlman may be delightful, but there’s a miscellaneous quality to their cluster that’s no match for, say, 9 to 5 costars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin reteaming for Grace and Frankie. Not that such chemistry is strictly necessary for pulling off stock scenes like Keaton ordering her recruits to look into the mirror and say what they love about their bodies, or merely appreciating Grier’s welcome presence onscreen.
Besides, what staples Poms leans on for its structure, right down to a climactic performance for the newly formed squad, it makes up for in disarming honesty. Death is a straightforward presence in the story, from Keaton’s illness to Weaver mooching free food from funerals to a shockingly cavalier bit about Perlman’s character maybe-kind-of-definitely murdering her husband. Financial distress, loneliness, and elder abuse—or at least the potential for it—all earn mentions. Weaver’s character is a flirt who bemoans single women outliving, and therefore outnumbering, single men, but no love interest materializes; her statistical point is allowed to stand. Poms is no Amour, and strains mightily to make the viewer feel the most good possible at all times. It merely touches on what’s typically left unsaid by centering people for whom these issues are everyday facts of life, not distant prospects to be swept under the rug.
Poms and Wine Country aren’t angry movies, or even particularly didactic ones. They’re the kind that end up having a disproportionate impact simply by virtue of how rare their point of view is. For women, middle and old age are defined by lack of visibility relative to our well-chronicled youth. Even an airbrushed, sunlit version of these eras stands out in comparison.