Review: Family Ties of Fey, Poehler Tested by ‘Sisters’

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Fey and Poehler party down in ‘Sisters’.

“Sisters” is a reminder that we generally love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler for everything except their movies. “My older one is really sweet and really easy going and my little one is rough,” Fey told Ellen DeGeneres of her daughters, Alice, 10, and Penelope, 4, on Wednesday. A sloppy, raunchy, underwritten, poorly assembled mishmash of sentiment and gross-out gags strung along an insultingly thin premise, the comedy still has a few moments that can make you laugh hard enough to shoot soda out your nose. The Sisters star joked of Penelope during her appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, saying, “When she is mad at you, she will just take you apart.” When DeGeneres asked if Fey used holiday presents to try to dissuade her daughter’s behavior, the actress admitted that she is cautious to bring the big man in red into it. “I struggle because I worry she will be on the naughty list,” she said, laughing. “There’s a lot of times where I feel she should be on the naughty list, but then if that happens then there will be hell to pay for Mommy. It isn’t inherently hilarious when Poehler, playing a nurse, tells a man with a music-box ballerina wedged up his ass that it’s unfortunately going to take a while for the device to wind down, because it’s “Swiss-made.” Or when Fey leers at a gardening neighbor that she’s looking for someone who’s capable of working on other people’s bushes.

Their second screen pairing, Sisters, is too much of a good thing, a flimsy premise with an implosion countdown of maybe 85 minutes, stretched a half-hour beyond that. Those moments are largely improvisational, and they reflect not only the stars’ roots in “Saturday Night Live” sketch comedy and half-hour TV shows but the comfort zone of screenwriter Paula Pell — a 20-year “SNL” veteran — and most of the supporting cast.

Coal, you got nothing.’ ” “I remember it being a very clarifying experience when I was a kid,” she shared, adding, “Going to sit on Santa’s lap, it was just a trailer that was parked in the J.C. But all these bits work onscreen, because they’re all delivered with such straight-faced, innocent conviction, and because they follow a simple dynamic: they’re small parts of larger comic set pieces, all purposefully stumbling toward a peak of relentless, hilarious momentum. While the tremendous wit and chemistry of Fey and Poehler is unquestioned, the latest big-screen meeting of the former “Weekend Update” hosts and frequent Golden Globes team feels overwhelming misjudged: a comedy that plays to neither’s strengths.

The chief novelty lies in letting the stars switch hats, with Fey playing Kate Ellis, a former wild child whose grown-up life is a disaster, and Poehler as Maura, Kate’s uptight nerd of a kid sister. Maura is divorced and closer to her rescue dogs than to other humans, and Kate is living on a friend’s couch, a jobless embarrassment to her levelheaded teen daughter (Madison Davenport). That’s the hometown of Maura (Poehler) and Kate Ellis (Fey), whose parents (played by Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) are selling their childhood home. He’s still deeply uncomfortable, she’s still trying to reassure him and failing, and that thing is still spinning in there, playing its tinkly little version of ‘Für Elise.’ This might actually go on for the rest of the movie.” It’s discomfort comedy drawn out to an excruciating degree until it bypasses awfulness and comes around to funny again — a common enough comedy tactic in the Judd Apatow Age.

With mom and dad already in a condo, Kate and Maura decide to have one last shindig before the house passes to its smarmy new owners, so they load up on the booze and send out invitations to all their old high school friends on Facebook. Bobby Moynihan and Kate McKinnon are on hand from the current iteration of “SNL,” former cast-mates Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph play weepy and mean, respectively, and Ike Barinholtz is on loan from “The Mindy Project” as a doughy romantic interest for Maura. For Maura (Poehler), this amounts to a crisis because she wasn’t consulted, and as the kind of caretaker figure who masks deep insecurity and a hefty dose of self-righteousness behind attempts to help other people, she’s uncomfortable with the loss of control. John Leguizamo is cast as a sort of walking STD, while muscleman John Cena, so sweetly abused in last summer’s “Trainwreck,” turns out to be this movie’s comic secret weapon as a deadpan drug dealer named Pazuzu. The movie does score a few sharp points about how adulthood can dull the edges of even the most relentless teenage party rat, and it staves off the inevitable sisterly argument and sentimental wrap-up as long as possible.

There are handful of solid guests like Maya Rudolph (as Kate’s nemesis), John Cena (as a drug dealer, making his second fine comedy cameo of the year following “Trainwreck”) and John Leguizamo (as a sleazy alcoholic). Her teenage daughter Haley (Madison Davenport, fresh off a very similar but much more serious role in A Light Beneath Their Feet) is exasperated with Kate’s lack of responsibility, adding an extra layer of guilt to her unemployment. Mostly, it’s content to let the stars cuss up a storm and talk in cringe-y “ghetto” slang in a lame attempt to appeal to “the kids” — who will probably go nowhere near this movie except in a pirated version on their laptops. There is that one scene, though, in which Barinholtz gets a music box playing “Fur Elise” stuck in a most embarrassing place, a bit so filthy and so funny that even Beethoven would have to laugh. It’s becoming increasingly clear that if she’s ever to star in a movie as good as anything else she’s done (from “30 Rock” to her book, “Bossypants”) she’s going to have to write it herself. “Sisters,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “crude sexual content and language throughout, and for drug use.” Running time: 118 minutes.

So after wallowing in the horrifying cutesiness of their perfectly preserved shared childhood bedroom, Maura and Kate plan one last wild rager in the (already sold) house. From the moment they decide to throw the party, the whole movie becomes an exercise in squirm as the situation spirals out of control, with an inevitable crash and burn around every corner. The SNL and Second City alums’ longtime offscreen friendship informs their onscreen chemistry, and boosts their status as awards-presenter favorites and frequent cultural commentators. That feeling extends to Sisters, where their characters are frequently frustrated with each other’s considerable faults, but still so mutually giving and approving that they encourage each other into entertainingly awful behavior.

Cast: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, Maya Rudolph, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, John Cena, Greta Lee, Rachel Dratch Having a built-in support system leaves them free to play grotesques without fear of judgment: they can try on terrible dresses, harass that hapless neighbor, or pooch out their stomachs to rub them against each other in a public “tummy kiss” without embarrassment.

Like the similarly contentious but close relationships between Seth Rogen and his besties in Apatow movies, or between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in the Jump Street movies, it may not accurately reflect any real-life friendship that’s ever existed. But that’s part of what makes it absorbing: the fantasy of having an endlessly approving partner in crime, and all the freedom and self-confidence that comes with a trustworthy confidant.

In that sense, Sisters feels like a close descendant of Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion, where Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino play a similarly bonded-at-the-hip pair of ditzes facing a similar party where identity crisis underlines every other crisis. They’re also crasser, louder, and above all more sexual. (Among other things, Kate is convinced Maura needs to take advantage of her last chance to get laid in her childhood home, in her childhood bed, possibly with that gardening neighbor, played affably and with virtually no impact by The Mindy Project’s Ike Barinholtz.) Sisters never reaches Bridesmaids levels of raunch, and it’s admirably removed from that film’s fascination with bodily fluids and feces.

Sisters packs in familiar comedy faces, especially women: Maya Rudolph gets the juiciest supporting part as a realtor desperate to crash Kate and Maura’s party, but Saturday Night Live’s Bobby Moynihan is a close second as the party guest who can’t stop cracking painfully awful jokes as he struggles for even the tiniest bit of validation from a crew that was already tired of him back in high school. They give the central sisterhood room to breathe, and to dig themselves deeper and deeper into situations that just get funnier as they get more unlikely and more inescapable. The film gives them enough room to develop past the rough outlines of “control freak” and “loser.” But like any Apatow movie, Sisters isn’t really about the lip service it pays to life lessons about growing up.

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