With International Day of Friendship being upon us, what better time to talk about an underrated, diamond in the rough of studio comedies? The first time I watched Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar was on an airplane, but to relegate Barb & Star to airplane movie status would be diminishing its star (so to speak). After that first watch, I already knew that I wanted to show the movie to every one of my friends. This movie has also been on my mind following the recent release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie - outside of the “Barb” in both titles (and Barb’s actress Anne Mumolo cameoing in Barbie), both films feature colorful production design, original song-and-dance numbers, a distinctly silly throughline, and a story about characters leaving the comfort of a place they’ve always known to discover a truth about themselves.
We first meet our titular, culotte-wearing characters(Anne Mumolo and Kristen Wiig) as they work at a furniture store in Soft Rock, Nebraska. They spend their days lounging on the floor models and running through inane topics – their crushes on the Pringles Man and Mr. Peanut, the fact that all the raccoons in the world are asleep, etc. (I call these conversations inane, but I’d actually love nothing more than to chat with Barb and Star).
The duo are best friends by affinity of their wavelengths. Their lives outside of each other may clue us in as to why they’re so close; their furniture store gig is a total dead end, yet they both come in to work each day even if they’re not scheduled for a shift. After work, they attend a “Talking Club” meeting at their house (they are roommates), where their friend Debbie (Vanessa Bayer) rules with an iron fist. Topics of discussion are chosen out of a jar, and rules are strictly enforced. When the topic comes to jobs, Barb and Star (who have just been fired that day) panic and say they got promoted only to immediately admit their lie, a violation of club rules for which they are banished. If this was the environment you lived in, it makes sense that you’d form such an intensely familiar rapport and bond like Barb and Star have.
Barb and Star realize that the events of the day are telling them to do something different, so they take their friend Mickey’s (Wendy McLendon-Covey) advice and leave Nebraska for the first time in their lives to vacation on the sunny shores of Vista Del Mar. While this is happening, the movie is cooking up a secondary plot involving villain Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Kristen Wiig in an Austin Powers-esque double role) and her henchman Edgar Pagét (Jamie Dornan).
Sharon plans to unleash a swarm of deadly mosquitos on the residents of Vista Del Mar as revenge for the bullying and ostracization she experienced there as a child (due to her pale skin and sensitivity to the sun). Edgar is infatuated by her, and goes to Vista Del Mar to do her bidding, motivated by her promise of making their relationship official, something she has no genuine intention of doing. Barb, Star, and Edgar encounter each other at the hotel bar and have a wild night out. Both Barb and Star fall for him, but Barb decides not to take things further with him out of loyalty to Star. However, Star carries on an affair with him and they fall in love.
Star conceals this from Barb by faking sick, leaving Barb to participate in all of the activities Vista Del Mar has to offer by herself while Star secretly spends time with Edgar. Both of them find that their excursions give their lives meaning. Barb explains how her husband Ron Quicksilver died (he was trampled in a Black Friday stampede), but the silver lining was that it was a quick death and Barb got a 50-inch flatscreen for $199. She felt like she stopped living, but now she wants to look at life as if for the first time again.
So that’s what she does. She snorkels and surfs and parasails and has a good time doing exciting new things by herself. Meanwhile, Star, who’s expressed insecurity over never finding someone who will love her after her husband cheated on her, has found a kind, caring partner who thinks she’s special in Edgar. There’s a crucial moment when Star and Edgar are in bed together and Edgar gets a call from Sharon. While he contemplates picking up, Star looks at her friendship bracelet, the same one Barb has, and looks out the window. We then see Barb, about to go snorkeling without Star, hesitate and look back. But then Edgar declines the call, and Barb and Star shake off their guilt and continue on.
The changing relationship between our titular best friends mirrors the natural ebb and flow most friendships go through, especially during times of transition. You and your friends go out into the world, and it’s new and fun, but embracing that necessitates self-development and moving out of your comfort zone. You might not see your old friends as often because you’re busy making new ones and having new experiences. You change and your relationships change, and that’s part of life. It doesn’t mean leaving your old friendships in the dust, however, and if you’re truly friends, you’ll find that you can pick up right where you left off.
While off on their own, Barb and Star each have a mystical encounter that sees them questioning this notion. While ATVing in the wilderness of Vista Del Mar, Barb meets Tommy Bahama (Andy García), a rugged adventurer type. Barb explains that she’s doing everything alone, confessing “I feel bad. But I have to admit, I also have never felt more alive. Am I a bad friend?” Tommy Bahama reassures her, saying “You could only be a friend if you’re a friend to yourself first. That is where you find your truth.”
Meanwhile, Star meets a crab named Morgan Freemond (Josh Robert Thompson), who offers her advice in that sage way only Morgan Freeman (or a good impersonator) could. When she questions whether or not what she’s doing is right and how it might affect Barb, he tells her, “Go with your heart. Love is rare! True friends forgive…to a point.”
The two wise men Barb and Star encounter invoke the importance of being true to oneself and to one’s friends. Morgan Freemond makes references to The Shawshank Redemption and Driving Miss Daisy in his monologue (despite not starring in these movies, as he is a crab), both movies that end with the reunion of two best friends after a period of separation. Now that Barb and Star have both reflected on what their separation has done for them, it’s time for them to reunite.
But as with any movie about friendship, the path to that reunion is going to be rocky. You must have the inevitable confrontation where the two friends find out about the others’ betrayal. I usually hate this part of these movies, both because I’m conflict-averse and because they suck the fun out of a situation to heighten the dramatic stakes (when it’s very easy to have both at the same time!). Barb & Star handles this story beat deftly, however, because it has such a strong sense of its protagonists and their relationship. Barb is about to go on a banana boat, but she changes her mind, as it’s the one thing she and Star were especially looking forward to doing together. She goes towards the hotel and spies Star and Edgar making out - her act of selflessness has been immediately rewarded with betrayal.
They eventually find out about what the other has been up to as they’re about to be eaten by alligators (set upon them by Sharon). Believing that they are going to die, Barb and Star argue about how they won’t hang out with each other in the afterlife or run around and play with little harps, and Barb brags that she’ll be best friends with Betsy Ross. It’s such a wonderfully specific bit that shows how, even in the heat of argument, the two are so remarkably in sync with each other. This is taken to an absurd extreme after they plunge underwater to escape the deadly mosquitos and find themselves in another life-or-death situation, where they communicate telepathically, and it’s implied they have a shared memory link. Truly some best friend shit.
Barb and Star are rescued and brought back to shore by Trish (Reba McEntire), a water spirit who is seemingly the manifestation of an inside joke Barb and Star have earlier in the movie (basically, their friendship saves them!). On the beach, they’re confronted by Sharon, who is still wanting revenge. But Star recognizes that she’s lonely and needs friends, and she, Barb, and the whole town offer to be her friend. Sharon accepts, and the whole town has a dance party on the beach. It’s an unabashedly easy, cheerful end to the movie, but sometimes that’s true in real life; spending time with your friends can make a terrible day into a good one. So, on this International Day of Friendship, reach out to a friend and watch Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar!