Cameos are expected in comedies, but it's a surprise when the guest roster trends a bit highbrow. Amy Poehler's new Netflix movie Wine Country, starring Poehler and her closest Saturday Night Live girlfriends on a romp through Napa Valley, doesn't trot out a big performer for its walk-on bit. Instead, the ladies cross paths with social work researcher Brené Brown, whose TED talk on "the power of vulnerability" went viral several years ago. And they treat her like a god ... or at least a celebrity on par with Cher.
Brown's messaging is geared toward people who avoid conflict and uncertainty in their lives, instructing them to instead embrace vulnerability as "the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change." Is it any wonder that Poehler and her co-stars—Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Paula Pell, Ana Gasteyer, Emily Spivey and Tina Fey—are so enamored of her? These performers have long adapted their comedic personas around the anxieties of work and female friendships, and now those fears and doubts are coalescing around the added specter of middle age. Brown's presence in Wine Country could just be some clever cross-promotion for her own Netflix special, but it feels more like signposting. Despite the movie's best efforts to make things pleasant and shiny and oh so gentle, its characters are indeed afraid of life's uncertainties, and they'll have many teachable moments before all is said and done.
Wine Country is basically Poehler's version of Adam Sandler's Netflix-funded vacations, but with some introspect in place of Sandler's crass gags. As director, Poehler casts her friends as former co-workers from the same Chicago pizza parlor (a not-so-subtle nod to their actual early days in Chicago improv). They've all gathered in Napa on the occasion of a 50th birthday; Dratch, who's already reached that milestone herself, plays the birthday girl. Everyone is a toned-down version of their usual high-wire shtick, with the exception of Fey, doing real character work as the grunting edible-soap queen who owns the house Poehler's character has rented.
Even in a repressed state, the others are walking embodiments of doubt and anxiety. Poehler's Abby is a tightly wound, Knope-esque planner masking a recent job loss with the birthday celebrations. Rudolph's Naomi is a mother terrified of a pending medical diagnosis. Gasteyer plays Catherine, a successful restaurateur who can't peel her eyes from her phone. Occasionally they'll pair off to whisper about one another, usually accompanied by the phrase "Can I just say something?" or the preferred alternative of Dratch's conflict-averse psychologist, "Can I offer some feedback?" You get the sense that these women are just saying on-camera the sorts of things they've always said to each other.