Recently, I heard folks on The Majority Report podcast praising a recent comedy film that I hadn't heard of: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. It was fantastic and a refreshing entry into the comedy genre.
In the little time I spend following the so-call "Discourse" online, folks seem to feel that comedy is stunted. In my observation, the "state of comedy" tends to match their perspectives in the so-called "culture wars" and against those of their opponents. I agree that comedy is stunted. I don't agree that it's due to the social / political climate. (As an aside, I find the very concept of the "culture war" / cancel culture / "political correctness" and the meta-discourses that surround them on any side of politics to be, at best, extraordinarily boring.)
Much more salient, to me, is that reproducible success--always a guiding concern of feature films--has arguably become the only important factor to many large studios. Given that comedy is the genre of the unexpected, it simply doesn't fit the prevailing economic wisdom of reproducibility. In an era of film where novelty is rare in general, comedy is arguably the most discernible casualty. (Horror, the other genre of the unexpected, arguably has been able to navigate this impasse due to the fact that low-budget films are not only possible but to some degree actively accepted in ways that would be difficult for comedy, but that is a longer conversation for another time.)
This context is necessary to understand why I loved Barb and Star to the degree that I did: it felt like something new. The influence of Kristen Wiig's characters from SNL on the film, as well as the women-led buddy comedy style of Bridesmaids (written by Wiig and co-star Mumolo) is clear. But there's something just so refreshingly surreal, strange, and satisfying about the display of those elements in this movie. Since you've read this far, I assume you've watched the film, so here are a few amazing moments to jog your memory.
- One of the two characters played by Wiig is shot out of a human cannon not once, but twice in this movie.
- In the montage introducing Barb and Star, there is a shot of them sitting back to back and inexplicably rotating their shoulders in sync. This somehow perfectly introduces their characters.
- When Trish, the water spirit, emerges at the end of the film, I had somehow forgotten that she was introduced in an extended conversation between Barb and Star where they simply imagined the qualities of women named Trish. These included Trish giving everyone a gift at Christmas, not allowing a terminal illness to best her and instead taking her own life, and subsequently becoming a water spirit. In my recollection, this is included in the first twenty to thirty minutes of the movie and then completely disappears until the actual water spirit named Trish appears at the end of the movie, causing me to say to myself "Wait, why does this sound familiar," rewinding back to the earlier scene, and laughing again but now with the knowledge that this random-ass conversation literally gives away the end of the movie. This movie is weird, you guys!
Probably the most surreal element is the fact that Edgar, in the middle of the movie, has a full-on music video, singing about his unrequited love for Sharon Fisherman. To penguins. And, for some reason, it ends up being a duet with a woman who has no bearing on the plot nor shows up in any other way (as far as I can remember). And this song sounds like some sort of inhuman hybrid of early 2010s radio pop and jock-rock from the eighties. It's literally got the credits for the music video, just right there in the middle of the movie. What in the world...
If you haven't seen this movie, you might think I'm describing some sort of war crime against cinema. But the reason why Barb and Star is so incredible is that its surrealism blends perfectly with an oddly heartwarming plot. And it does so in complete avoidance of the "comedy is dead" crowd's mandates on what should be funny. See it.