The Winding Road to ‘Sisters’

23 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

In Sisters, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler create an awkward, inclusive intimacy.

Starting with Chicago’s ImprovOlympic in the early 1990s and continuing through “Saturday Night Live” and films and even hosting the Golden Globes with terrific style, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been arguably the funniest, smartest, most entertaining comedic duo of the last quarter-century. “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. Not to mention their stellar individual achievements, most notably Fey’s “30 Rock” and Poehler’s “Parks and Recreation.” Year after year, as solo talents and a team, they’ve been knocking it out of the park.

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. Trying on ill-fitting dresses for their planned big bash, they request something “a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42.” The film, written by Paula Pell (a “Saturday Night Live” veteran, like Poehler and Fey) and directed by Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”), is a brazenly crude farce about female arrested development that doesn’t so much seek to rise above its ludicrous absurdity as much as ride it out.

So it’s with no small reluctance I report “Sisters” is a depressing, overlong, repetitive slapstick disaster in which two of the most appealing stars around wallow in the muck AND the mire, figuratively and literally. 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 unquestionable, the big-screen meeting of the former “Weekend Update” hosts feels overwhelming mismatched. If your idea of cutting-edge humor is a drugged-out, fortysomething class clown doing artwork with his genitals; a pratfall that results in a musical ballerina figurine jammed up a man’s rear end; tired stereotypes about lesbians and Korean manicurists; numerous characters making drunken fools of themselves and, yes, sisters wrestling in mud, by all means step right up and purchase a ticket. 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.

When Maura learns their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, trying hard) are selling the family home in Orlando, she and Kate race to Florida — only to find a “SOLD” sign planted in the lawn, Mom and Dad already living in a condo in a senior citizens’ complex, and a nearly empty house save for their two bedrooms, which apparently haven’t been touched since the girls moved out — when, 20 years ago?? 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. Ike Barinholtz lends his easy charm to the part of James, a nice guy from down the street who becomes a romantic interest for Maura. (The scene in which Maura and Kate meet James as he’s landscaping in his front yard and they flirt with him is so tone-dead, and the sisters come off as so obnoxious, it’s a wonder this guy shows up for their party.) Fueled by drugs and booze, dozens of fortysomethings raise the roof and then tear the roof down.

With their parents’ house already sold, they nostalgically sift through the relicts of their ’80s-adorned bedroom and decide to invite their old high school classmates to an old-fashioned rager at “Ellis Island.” The attendees are mostly parents that no longer know how to let loose, but a concoction of alcohol, drugs and desperation eventually unleashes a wildly freewheeling party that, naturally, spins out of control. In scene after scene after scene after — well, you get the idea, these middle-aged maniacs abuse the house and the surrounding grounds in mind-numbingly uncreative fashion. 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.

Poehler and Fey seem to be having fun sexing it up a bit, wearing provocative clothing and performing dance numbers and flaunting their attractiveness more than is their usual practice. Kate and Maura decide to throw one last party like the old days, gathering old classmates, a Korean manicure squad, Bobby Moynihan intentionally annoying, lesbian stereotypes (including SNL’s Kate McKinnon), and John Cena as a hulking drug dealer named Pazuzu.

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. 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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