For better or for worse, a certain type of filmmaking has come to dominate American film comedy. Heavily reliant on its cast and not especially cinematic, the typical contemporary studio comedy is based around on-set improvisation, with directors who sit back and let the cameras roll, then assemble the best lines in the editing room. Sisters is one of these movies, as the rapidly cut, stream-of-consciousness comedic dialogue scenes make clear. Luckily, though, it also stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, longtime friends whose affectionate chemistry—they don’t really look like siblings, but they interact like siblings—and quick reflexes were developed on the improv stage.
Fey and Poehler are clearly the center of the film, and watching their lively games of verbal ping-pong is always an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes or so. (This movie is longer than that, but we’ll get to that later.) And while there’s clearly a lot of riffing going on, 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell’s script provides a trampoline of wordplay for the actors to bounce off of, packed with smart, amusing details like a dog named Polenta and semi-comatose sales associate Brayla. In general, the humor is hard-R raunchy, with lots of sex jokes, drug jokes, and Fey saying “fuck.”
Reversing the duo’s Baby Mama dynamic, Poehler is well cast here as uptight younger sister Maura, who focuses on everyone else’s needs so she never has to think about her own. Fey is somewhat less well cast, but she’s clearly having fun as the irresponsible older sister Kate, who refuses to acknowledge the effect her party-girl lifestyle has on her teenage daughter Haley (Madison Davenport). (Fey does bitchy quite well—she wrote Mean Girls, don’t forget—but is less convincing as someone with rage issues.) Needless to say, they’re both 42 going on 15.
The plot is set into motion when Maura and Kate come home to Orlando for a visit, where they’re shocked to find out that their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have sold their family home and want them to clean our their rooms as soon as possible so a pair of stereotypical Manhattan yuppies can move in. In a fit of hurt feelings and nostalgia, the sisters decide to throw one last rager at the house, inviting high-school friends, a gang of hard-partying Korean nail techs led by New Girl’s Greta Lee, and cute handyman neighbor James (Ike Barinholz). Most of the movie takes place at the party itself, where Fey and Poehler mingle with the crowd, most of them played by SNL alums.
Highlights include Rachel Dratch, who’s always great playing a sad sack, and here is no exception; Kate McKinnon as the crazy-eyed half of a flannel-clad lesbian power couple; and Maya Rudolph as Kate’s high-school enemy, whose life is as sad as everyone hopes their teenage nemesis’ life will be. There are also some men, like John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynahan, and John Cena, who seems to be following the Dwayne Johnson 10-Step Plan To Crossover Success with his recent string of comedic roles. All are capable, but the women steal the show in this one.
The problem is that Sisters may be too fast paced, with jokes flying by and characters popping in and out so quickly that none of them ever really go anywhere. (Oddly, one joke that is given time to breathe—and one of the film’s few visual gags—is the bit featured in the trailer where Barinholz gets Poehler’s music box stuck up his butt; it works better in the movie than in the trailer, but it’s still a juvenile choice for a centerpiece.) And while the performers are talented, the supporting characters are stock archetypes, and the plot is basically Risky Business retrofitted for the modern (wo)man-child. So the movie’s attempt at a big emotional confrontation at the end just feels like padding, as does the extended denouement. (At 118 minutes, Sisters is a half-hour too long. Call it the Apatow effect.) Basically, without Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, there wouldn’t be any reason for this movie to exist. But maybe Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are reason enough.