An ode to ‘Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,’ the best film of 2021

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

“Jamie Dornan is being lauded for his turn as the father of a family living amid the Troubles of the late 1960s in Belfast, a top awards contender this season,” read a recent Hollywood Reporter article, which should have instead read: “Jamie Dornan is being lauded for his turn as a henchman sent to the luxurious Vista Del Mar Hotel with a homing beacon that will attract mosquitos that his boss​, Sharon Fisherman,​ ​will deploy to kill everyone​ in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar​, a top awards contender this season.​”​ But we live in a cruel world.

“I mean, it’s just appalling. It sickens me. I woke up this morning, and I was in such a rage,” Joy Behar once said on The View, referring to the United States government. I share similar feelings about the lack of respect given to Barb and Star, a film brimming with ridiculous joy. By the opening frame during my first viewing of the film, my pick for the Academy Award for Best Picture was locked:

Credit: Lionsgate

Unfortunately, I am not part of the Academy and therefore have no say in matters like this — not to mention the fact that the film is actually ineligible due to suspect bureaucracy — but the sentiment remains: Barb and Star was the best film of 2021. I’ll lay out why in the essay below, but please recognize the rage in my keystrokes as I try to comprehend why this film has been relatively forgotten in the annals of great cinema. Citizen Kane is great, but Barb and Star it ain’t. 

But don’t just take my word for it. Barb and Star has developed a small but mighty band of enthusiasts. “I can literally give an entire presentation on why Barb and Star works from a comedic standpoint. It is a masterclass in comedy writing,” wrote one Twitter user.

“WHERE IS BARB AND STAR, BARACK?!” another rightly asked when President Barack Obama released his list of favorite movies of the years.

“I’m taking note of anyone who doesn’t have Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar in their top 10 films of 2021,” another user tweeted, accompanied by a photo of Florence Pugh holding up a knife on an Instagram live.

So what’s the hubbub, bub? Barb and Star asserts its tone in its premise alone. Middle-aged best friends Barb (Kristen Wiig) and Star (Annie Mumolo) are both fired from their jobs and decide to leave their home of Soft Rock, Neb. for the first time to go on vacation in Vista Del Mar, Fla. with the promise of rest, relaxation and a “soul douche.” Meanwhile, an eccentric villain (also played by Wiig) is plotting against the denizens of Vista Del Mar and plans to unleash lethal mosquitos as retribution for her miserable childhood spent there. As it goes, it’s up to Barb, Star and their culottes to save the day. Oh, and Reba McEntire shows up as a deus ex machina mermaid named Trish. 

The plot is so complicated and nonsensical in its design yet the film has a built-in self-awareness that frees the viewer from trying to assert logic if they’re willing to submit. In a year of Dune and Spider Man, House of Gucci and The Matrix, Spencer and Being the Ricardos, Barb and Star stands out for being a rare comedy against a backdrop of a world in peril and a lack of light-hearted escapism. But that wasn’t the film’s goal when it was first envisioned. 

The film was loosely conceived in 2011 while Wiig and Mumolo were writing Bridesmaids. They envisioned what Maya Rudolph’s character’s mom would be like and wrote lengthy scenes for a character that ultimately was cut for having nothing to do with the plot of the movie. They joked that maybe they would write something. They kept marinating on the idea, then landed on the title and, from there, got to work on fully realizing the project. It was first announced in April 2019, nearly a year before the outset of the pandemic. Shooting began three months later and concluded in September 2019. The film was set for theatrical release on July 31, 2020, but was pushed back a year when theaters began shuttering in March of 2020. January 2021 saw the decision to cancel the film’s theatrical release, with the film instead opening via video on demand, where it ultimately fizzled without the marketing arm of a theatrical release.

Thanks to overwhelming critical acclaim, it found a loyal albeit small audience. “I chuckled, mostly, and giggled a little, and got to check out of life for a while without the feeling of leaving my brain at the door,” wrote Vox in their review. “Barb and Star commits to its deep silliness so sweetly and completely that you can’t help falling a little bit in love with them too,” wrote Entertainment Weekly. “Wacky, tacky and weirdly delightful,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. But it’s Jesse Hassenbger’s review for the AV Club that expresses it best: “To be clear, some of the intended laughs don’t land, and occasionally the movie gets a little poky … Yet this kitschy, weirdo movie has such a bizarre clarity of vision about what it wants to do that a few biffed jokes are almost part of its charm, like its sketch-comedy accents and intentional defiance of logic.”

And it’s in pushing past the lack of logic, or learning to throw up your arms at a biffed joke rather than turn away in judgement, that the film found an audience to love and extol the film as one of the year’s best. The film asks you not to wonder why breakout star Reyn Doi is lip-syncing to Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb’s “Guilty” and instead ask why wouldn’t he? Why is Kristen Wiig playing the dual roles of Star (who has no last name, despite the fact that Barb has one) and Sharon Fisherman? Who else could play Fisherman if not Wiig? Why is Jamie Dornan pirouetting around the beach singing a song where he asks the seagulls in the sand if they can hear his prayer? You’re asking the wrong questions!

Barb and Star exudes joy because it’s so clearly made with it. I can’t think of any equivalent outside of perhaps Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion in balancing absurdity, hilariousness and heart. I found myself unquestionably rooting for them to save this town from the lethal mosquitos and for Star to end up with Edgar, a man who was, days earlier, helping to facilitate the mass murder of an entire popular. I want a sequel. I want a prequel. I want a television series spinoff. I want the action figures. Above all, I want justice for Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.

If you enjoyed this story, read about how ‘Survivor’ is finally addressing its long-prevailing racial bias here.

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