Coming up through Saturday Night Live, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have joined the ranks of comedy’s finest double acts. They’re each individually known as the leading ladies of Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock respectively, but they’ve worked together a few times since they left SNL and you need look no further than their stint hosting the Golden Globes together to see how their comedic chemistry has endured and evolved.
So, it’s with no small amount of anticipation that we’ve been keeping an eye on Sisters, which is their first movie together since 2008’s Baby Mama (barring a quick cameo in Anchorman 2). Producing and starring as the Ellis sisters, a pair of very immature ladies who discover an urgent need to recapture their high school glories, the film is a witty and subversive take on the kind of party-centric comedy that has most often been the domain of teenage boys and man-children.
Timid nurse Maura (Poehler) and her self-professedly ‘brassy’ big sister Kate (Fey) have grown apart over the years. Maura has gone through a divorce and Kate is trying to reconnect with her errant, embarrassed teenage daughter Haley (Madison Davenport). But they’re brought back together when their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) drop a bombshell – they have sold the home in which the sisters grew up and, more importantly, in which they had a whole bunch of legendary ‘Ellis Island’ parties when they were teenagers.
A clear-out of their bedroom leads Maura and Kate to long for their formative years and the pair decide to have one last party before they say goodbye to the house forever. But with the new owners popping their heads around the door every so often and old rivals (like Maya Rudolph’s Brinda) circling their social event of the season, their final fling takes more than a couple of unexpected turns.
It’s a simple set-up, which pays off marvellously in some regards, but this one is a curious case. At a certain point in the running time, I found myself thinking that this could have been much worse if even a single cast-member had been different. It’s well written and directed, but the film does take a little while to warm up before bringing the big laughs and yet still runs on the goodwill towards the leads, plus that of the SNL alums and acting stalwarts who make up the supporting cast.
But there’s only so far that liking the people involved can take you and happily, Sisters has much more to offer than just a Fey-Poehler reunion. To compare to another comedic double act, their casting here is similar to the way in which Simon Pegg and Nick Frost flipped character types for The World’s End, with Pegg playing a layabout and Frost playing his loyal-to-a-fault best mate instead of vice versa.
Here, in contrast to the characters they played in Baby Mama, Fey’s Kate is the wilder one of the two sisters and she seems to relish playing against type, while Poehler does a terrific line in buttoned-down humility as Maura, bearing the brunt of the kind of embarrassment that slips right under her shameless sibling’s radar. A scene in which she reads her character’s teenage diary is heartbreakingly hilarious and even captures something of the spirit of Adrian Mole.
Speaking of matters of the heart, Maura’s coy efforts with hunky neighbour James (Ike Barinholtz) give the film some romantic relief, on the way to a gross-out punchline that was only partly spoiled in the trailers. It’s a little too handy that James is a handyman, given the devastation that’s about to land on the Ellises’ doorstep (and floor and walls and ceiling and pool and you get the picture there), but when the party gets going, the film really pulls out all the stops.
There are many more laughs to be had here than in the likes of Project X and other teen movies – heck, SNL‘s Bobby Moynihan has a story arc as a try-hard former classmate that mostly takes place in sight gags, whether in the foreground or the background, and he brings near-constant hilarity all by himself in the second hour of the film. Likewise, Maya Rudolph is reliably brilliant as the bitchy Brinda, trying to sabotage the party however she can but constantly betraying how desperately she wants to be there.
Another scene-stealer is John Cena’s Pazuzu, a literally larger-than-life drug dealer who surveys the party with bemusement and occasionally throws in a few ridiculous deadpan one-liners. It’s a 180 degree difference from his outrageously over-sensitive turn in this year’s Trainwreck, but on the evidence of his work in 2015, Cena has unearthed an unlikely comedic range that makes him fit right into an ensemble.
Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore handles the escalating mayhem with gusto while screenwriter Paula Pell (SNL, 30 Rock) continually taps the central conceit for unexpected laughs, including at least one hilarious declaration that puts a different spin on a party scene populated by immature adults. However, the narrative on which the mayhem depends is a little flimsy (especially in the case of the Haley sub-plot) and at almost two hours, that does start to stretch the viewer’s patience a little by the time it gets into the final act.
But for what Sisters lacks in brevity, it makes up for with a further lack of the kind of endless improvised spiel that often bloats more blokey comedies beyond all reasonable endurance. There is surely some improv dotted around in here, but never does it stall the story for a line-o-rama about some character’s amusing appearance. Its running time is definitely pushing it for a studio comedy, but at least it’s jam-packed with incident, rather than padded with banter.
It’s also worth mentioning that the film makes ideal counter-programming to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is about to dominate cinemas for the next few weeks, and it’s been cannily marketed with the self-explanatory hashtag #YouCanSeeBoth. Though it seems certain that everyone and their mums will be off to a galaxy far, far away between Thursday and New Year, (and we can be relatively sure that 30 Rock‘s occasional Leia-cosplayer Liz Lemon would too) this is perfectly positioned for anybody who wants more from the multiplex in the next few weeks.
Sisters owes a lot to its talented cast and even so, it could still stand to be about half an hour shorter. It’s definitely not a knock-out future classic of any kind, but it never stoops to unearned vulgarity, and moreover, it finds more enjoyable uses for the old party comedy template than anything else we’ve seen in a while.
Finally, as a star vehicle for Fey and Poehler, it amply demonstrates their unfailing ability to make anything funnier just by being there. If we can have one like this to go with every single Star Wars film due out in the next few years, that would quite alright by us.
Sisters is in UK cinemas now.
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