Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are Hollywood’s go-to gal pals, the most loved and respected comedy duo in the business today, and a quick glance at their past collaborations should explain why. From their years together on Saturday Night Live to co-hosting the Golden Globes twice (not to mention toplining a box office hit in Baby Mama), no pair of comic actresses has sustained as consistently fruitful and funny a partnership. Real-life best friends, the two complete and build off each other, wielding a thick-as-thieves camaraderie that almost always results in massive comedic fireworks, no matter the setting.
That said, for all Fey and Poehler’s successes on the small screen (Fey created and starred in 30 Rock, then followed it up with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Poehler toplined the recently concluded Parks and Recreation), neither have quite found the same level of acclaim in their movie roles. Fey has led a few modestly successful but forgettable titles, like Date Night and Admission, while Poehler has arguably fared worse, only scoring one bona fide hit with Inside Out, a movie she’s never on screen for. That’s less of a reflection on their talents and more a consequence of studios traditionally (read: up until Bridesmaids) being reluctant to take chances on any female-led comedies, but given the actresses’ just-okay track records on their own, bringing them together for maximum comic wattage feels like a no-brainer.
And so here we are with Sisters, a raucous party comedy brought about by the understanding that Fey and Poehler’s countless admirers already reached long ago – that even though these two look drastically different and excel in somewhat divergent comic arenas, they’re so attached at the hip and explosively funny as a leading duo that they might as well be flesh-and-blood. Sisters just makes it official.
In a well-advised reversal of their Baby Mama parts, Fey takes on the role of Kate Ellis, an immature and largely incompetent beautician whose all-consuming nostalgia for the good ol’ party-animal days disgusts her more levelheaded teenage daughter (Madison Davenport). Poehler, meanwhile, plays Maura, Kate’s more responsible and put-together sister, who’s steadily employed but has her own set of issues, masking post-divorce “heart-cramps” with chirpy and very unasked-for displays of kindness to strangers (she’s such a cavalier humanitarian that she gives life advice to people who look homeless before finding out if they actually are). Both actresses are of course hilarious to watch at work, though the one-dimensional nature of their protagonists feels like a missed opportunity.
These two sisters have drifted apart over the years, but they reconvene at their beloved childhood home in Orlando, only to learn that their retiree parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have already made up their minds to sell the place. Faced with the reality that their precious nest will soon belong to a pair of obnoxiously perky newlyweds, Kate and Maura decide to go out on top – by throwing one last big bash reminiscent of the ones Kate was notorious for setting up in high school. The guest list includes most of the foggily familiar faces in their Facebook friends lists, as well as a local manicurist named Hae Won (Greta Lee) and the sweet-natured hunk (Ike Barinholtz) from up the street, on whom Maura is nursing a serious crush.
Before long, the party is raging in earnest, with SNL vets like Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Bobby Moynihan popping up alongside a cadre of well-cast weirdos, including John Leguizamo as a supremely skeezy former classmate and a heavily tattooed, scene-stealing John Cena as an impassive drug dealer named Pazuzu, who says things like “My safe word is keep going” to an all-too-receptive Kate. But predictably, the night soon spirals out of control with Kate’s nemesis plotting revenge for being left off the guest list, drug-crazed partygoers coating the walls in every conceivable fluid, and major humiliations befalling most of the main players.
There’s nothing particularly inventive about the story on display in Sisters (written by Paula Pell), which plays like a very slightly smarter, feminist riff on the supremely dunder-headed Step Brothers. Puerile gags abound about butts, dicks and the assorted objects that wind up being penetrated by or stuck into them – there’s an agonizingly extended one you’ve probably seen in the trailers involving Barinholtz’s character and a wind-up ballerina music box. And though a lot of those jokes eventually do stick, delivered within an inch of their lives by some very funny actors, they feel like the easy way out for such talented performers.
Far better are the pre-party scenes between Kate and Maura, wherein they shop for new dresses (“We need clothes that are a little less Forever 21 and more Suddenly 42,” one quips), hilariously fail to bridge the language gap with Hae Won while in a nail parlor, and try to clean out their rooms only to be distracted by poring over old diary entries. Sisters is savvy in how it captures the innate weirdness of homecoming, how stepping back into your childhood home has a way of reducing you to a more juvenile, childlike state of mind, no matter whether you try to fight it or not. Those scenes suggest there was at one point the potential for a much more interesting and insightful comedy about youth and adulthood, but they’re soon overrun by more hedonistic endeavors.
Clocking in at almost two hours, Sisters has the unfortunate feel of an SNL skit that has gone on far too long, with plenty of questionable stereotypes, gross-out gags and recurring bits of party-related insanity (especially those involving Lee’s one-note character and Moynihan’s over-the-top craziness) that detract from the comedy’s more ebullient components and emotional undercurrents. With regard to the latter, there’s a subplot about Kate’s daughter that feels particularly rudderless, never given the time or energy to unfold properly.
This is the kind of movie that would signify progress for someone like Adam Sandler, or business as usual for Seth Rogen and his ragtag gang of pot-smoking pinheads – but Fey and Poehler, across two extraordinary comic careers, have already shown us that they’re capable of operating on a much more intellectually stimulating level. To be fair, you will probably laugh impulsively at some of the more ridiculous bits. But you won’t remember any of them a week from now, and there’s little question that nothing in Sisters is truly worthy of its stars. A suggestion? Next time, why doesn’t the studio leave the script-writing to them?
Fey and Poehler bring irrepressible chemistry and ace comic timing to this thoroughly run-of-the-mill house-party comedy, but the puerile and predictable material is beneath them.