At this point, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have successfully confirmed that when it comes to funny women, they make a formidable duo. Teaming with screenwriter Paula Pell, a joke-writing secret weapon from their days on Saturday Night Live, seems like the perfect recipe for laughs as well. What they come up with in Sisters is a rare entry into the “party comedy” sub-genre that brought us Bachelor Pad, Old School, Animal House, and much more recently, This is the End and Neighbors. It’s all about the craziness that happens when a group of people come together and drugs and alcohol are implemented into the mix.
Inspired by Pell’s own childhood diary, Amy Poehler plays Maura Ellis, an introverted divorcee who has been living a rather dull lifestyle while Fey is Kate, her life-of-the-party sister and hairdresser, who has just been fired. She’s also about to get kicked out of her apartment to boot. Their parents have decided to sell their Orlando, Florida home, so they return home to pack their stuff up and throw one more wild party where the bookish Maura can have fun while her sister offers to stay sober and be the “party mom.”
There are a couple levels of humor at work in Sisters, although it’s not a particularly inventive concept at least on paper. We only get 40 minutes of set-up before getting tossed into the party, which takes up the remainder of the movie’s nearly two-hour running time. At first, it’s more about Kate and Maura reconnecting as they prepare for their party, hanging out in their old bedroom adorned with ‘80s memorabilia and encountering all sorts of strange characters from their past.
You often hear of the oddball characters in the state of Florida and the things that happen there, but you soon realize that the movie may have to rely on such characters to get any laughs.
The cast of Sisters has been jam-packed with many of the comediennes’ friends and acquaintances from past endeavors, and it’s fun seeing them interact with the underrated Rachel Dratch once again. Another long-time colleague, Maya Rudolph, plays Kate’s childhood nemesis Brinda who’s fun to watch trying to constantly crash or outright ruin their party, but this is also where it treads similar ground as last year’s Neighbors.
The party itself is fairly dull at first until Kate gives a Braveheart-like battle speech to everyone that this is their night to have fun and go wild, and that’s when things start getting crazy. This is where Bobby Moynihan, another SNL vet, shines as the class clown Alex, who is probably the funniest part of the movie with his absolutely banana antics.
Unfortunately, this is also the movie’s biggest obstacle since it often relies so much on others to give the movie a much-needed boost. A movie starring Poehler and Fey shouldn’t have to rely on others to be funny, but it definitely doesn’t feel like they’re right for their respective parts.
That’s not to say that they’re completely dismissible, but Poehler certainly does more with her character than Fey, who is never quite as funny with others’ material as she is with her own. At least Poehler has a cute romantic subplot when Maura flirts with Ike Barinholtz’s Jack. But at times, the improv in these scenes becomes too much, as she seems to be throwing out every single possibility “alt” line, like something you might see in the DVD extras.
In real life, no one would ever try to throw out every possible joke to come onto someone they’re attracted to, so it immediately takes you out of the story. Having been one of the funniest things in Neighbors, Barinholtz seems somewhat wasted as the straight man romantic interest here, much like his Mindy Show character.
John Leguizamo is similarly forgettable as Dave, a slightly seedy character with very little personality compared to the character he played in American Ultra, but then you have wrestler John Cena as a tattooed drug dealer that Kate hits upon, and he’s one of the few “actors” in the movie who does anything surprising or beyond the norm. The fact that three comedies this year have cast Cena for laughs maybe says something more about the strength of those comedies’ overall writing prowess than anything else.
There’s some surprisingly funny (albeit racist) bits between Poehler and Greta Lee as Hae-wan, a Korean nail specialist who shows up to party with her friends but never really delivers many laughs beyond the pronunciation of her name.
Otherwise, there’s just a lot of over-the-top humor that isn’t particularly funny, mostly relying on a surplus of needless expletives and sex humor, as if Pell realized the concept alone wasn’t strong enough to be funny. It’s even worse when hearing profanity awkwardly being spewed from the mouth of no less than Dianne Wiest. She plays the girls’ mother with James Brolin as their father, two more talented actors who are wasted in roles where they’re not allowed to bring anything more than just being on screen with Fey and Poehler.
Add to that an unnecessary subplot about Kate trying to reconnect with her daughter (Madison Davenport), who barely has any purpose in the movie other than to try to cause conflict between the sisters during a last act, which offers the requisite amount of property destruction to the Ellis house.
Speaking of spiraling out of the control, the movie is directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), who doesn’t offer enough of the controlling hand necessary to keep any semblance of order. A movie like this needs a director who can find the best bits and cut them together to get the most laugh mileage. Having been on set for one hilarious scene and seeing how poorly it connects in the final edit made me wonder if he was the right director for this. It’s a bit like when Adam Sandler hires his friends to direct one of his movies so that he’s surrounded by “yes men” rather than a director that can rein him in.
To make matters worse, Sisters ends with a gratuitous tacked-on Christmas ending, attempting to justify the film’s odd choice of release dates and an obligatory end credit blooper reel, which doesn’t offer many more laughs than the movie itself.
Otherwise, there isn’t much to offer beyond giving a showcase for Poehler and Fey to do a lot of schtick, and it doesn’t work nearly as well as their previous effort Baby Mama, maybe because the premise isn’t as funny on its own. In a year full of funny women-driven comedies like Trainwreck and Spy, it’s hard to believe that despite having two equally funny women, Sisters fails to connect and feels like a let-down, although there’s probably enough to enjoy that it isn’t a complete disaster.
Sisters opens on Friday, Dec. 18.