On “Saturday Night Live,” sketch characters arrive, connect with the audience (or not), and hit occasional sustained peaks of popularity, becoming laugh-riot fixtures and old friends. For a while, starting in the ’90s, the highest honor you could bestow upon an “SNL” character was for him or her to be given their own spin-off movie. That era faded (in 2010, “MacGruber” drove a stake through its heart), but that was probably a good thing, since most of those movies were notoriously tepid, hit-or-miss affairs.
Now, though, you see original comedies that, in spirit at least, could be “SNL” sketch spin-offs. “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” was one. “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is another. Only this one isn’t bad. As Barb and Star, a couple of ludicrously fuddy-duddy fortysomething best friends from Soft Rock, Nebraska, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo don’t wear out their welcome, and the movie, while it has more chuckles than belly laughs, doesn’t feel padded. It’s the bright and daffy absurdist spinoff that these weren’t-but-could-have-been-sketch-comedy characters deserve, and it feels, in its modestly clever and diverting way, just right.
Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) are enthusiastically twee Midwestern rubes who work at Jennifer Convertibles — which isn’t funny, though what is funny is that they think it’s an exciting job. They treat the place as their second home, and I mean that literally. They have coffee talk on the display couch; they’ll steal in during Thanksgiving to host a holiday dinner. At first they seem like twins, or variations on the same person, dressed in cardigans with matching flowered shirts, their hair home-curled into frizzy officious poufs that bring to mind the Jane Fonda of “Nine to Five” or Marcia Wallace on “The Bob Newhart Show.”
They’re like chatterbox queens of the coffee klatsch, their conversation a nattering onslaught of maniacally cheerful and almost paralyzing banality. They’ll say things like “To me, a woman named Trish is a woman you can count on!” or “The air smells different here!” “You’re right! It smells like Red Lobster!” And they put a happy face on everything, with their overgrown student-council boosterism. They’re prim and cautious, they’ve never had an unconventional thought, and they’re so mild that they’re the essence of a certain goody-two-shoes Middle American normality-as-weirdness. They make Romy and Michelle look like hipsters. They may be the most golly-gosh team of cockeyed optimists since SCTV’s Bob and Doug Mackenzie.
So why don’t they wear out their welcome in five minutes? Because Wiig and Mumolo, teaming up as screenwriters for the first time since the great “Bridesmaids” (2011), have tucked just enough of a vision of life into the margins of these two women who think Mr. Peanut is sexy and Don Cheadle is pronounced “Chee-adle,” who treat an evening at a bar as a walk on the wild side, who talk about finding their “shimmer,” and who regard the wearing of culottes as close to godliness. (This movie does for culottes what “Wayne’s World” did for Queen.) A great deal of male screen comedy has been built around spectacularly over-the-top screwup losers. Barb and Star are outrageously genteel, perky, homespun losers. There’s a closet humanity to their ridiculousness.
Early on, they learn that the furniture outlet they work for is closing down, leaving them without jobs — and, in a funny way, without an identity. As Barb sums up their predicament, “We’ll find another job. This town is full of places looking to hire women in their 40s!” And that’s before she and Star confess that they don’t have high-school degrees. Barb is a widow, Star is divorced, and neither has been on a date since; they haven’t even left town. So when they’re told, by a friend back from her vacation, about a little white-sand oasis on the coast of Florida called Vista Del Mar, they decide to take a one-week getaway there. How clued-in are they to the ways of the new world? Neither of them have cell phones, and for the trip Barb packs “travelers checks, left over from my wedding.”
When they get to the Palm Vista Hotel and are greeted by a musical production number that feels like the high point of their lives, they’re sure they’ve landed in paradise. It turns out they’re actually supposed to be at the Palm Vista Motel, a dump with a waterless swimming pool that spurs Star to observe, “I like how the stains everywhere look like designs!” But the manager of the deluxe beach-side resort, played by that redoubtable card Michael Hitchcock, finds room for them, so they’re soon free to make spectacles of themselves amid the spring-break-for-middle-agers hedonism that is Florida unhinged.
To goose along the action, there is — wait for it — a sci-fi supervillain, played, incognito, by Kristen Wiig. Her name is Sharon Gordon Fisherman, and she’s a punk kabuki she-demon with jet-black dagger bangs, powder-white skin, and albino eyebrows and lashes; Wiig’s potent operatic performance suggests Faye Dunaway playing Klaus Nomi. The character has a plan to sic a swarm of killer mosquitoes on Vista Del Mar (the town that shunned her for being a freak when she grew up there). But the real point of this demented plot is to plant her sexy right-hand man, Edgar (Jamie Dornan), at the hotel, where he hooks up with our heroines.
This happens at the bar, under the influence of a cocktail the size of a fishbowl (and a dance-floor scene set to a throbbing disco version of “My Heart Will Go On”), all of which leads to the very funny punchline of Barb, Star, and Edgar waking up in bed the morning after in a vertically stacked sandwich. It’s even funnier when the two women discuss what happened, and in their ho-hum insurance-office way they’re completely matter-of-fact about recalling every gymnastic sex position. That sounds like a cheap joke, but in this case it actually fills in Barb and Star. They’re American drones, all right, but they’re erotically wide-awake. And their mutual quest for Edgar’s attention is going to split them apart.
“Barb and Star Go to to Vista Del Mar” is no “Bridesmaids.” That movie was five times funnier, and five times deeper. This one, with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as two of its producers, has that “Relax, it’s just a frothy cartoon” vibe, with the director, Josh Greenbaum, spanking the jokes along. The film features such knowing absurdities as a suicidal crab with the voice of Morgan Freeman, Jamie Dornan cavorting on the beach in a broken-hearted power ballad, and Damon Wayans Jr. as a top-secret operator who compulsively reveals every secret. For all that, there’s a sneaky hint of everyday obsession to the two lead performances. Mumolo plays Barb with exquisite plastic manners and a slowly gathering storm beneath them that recalls Andrea Martin at her most inspired, and Wiig makes Star a geek in bloom. The movie may be an extended sketch, but these two sketch it in with saucy spirit.