Tina Fey and Amy Poehler: Not Exactly Party Animals
‘Sisters’ review: Fey-Poehler chemistry wasted in weak comedy.
Such is the magic of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the dynamic duo at the playful, prurient, occasionally perverse heart of “Sisters.” As temperamental opposites who happen to be siblings, the women who for years have given the Golden Globes ceremony its zing — and who made the underpraised comedy “Baby Mama” such a revelatory pleasure — here spin an otherwise slender premise into antic, quippily lighthearted comic gold. As of Dec. 16, the comment last posted on the “Sisters” message board at imdb.com carried the headline “Star Wars comes out on Friday yayyy” and the one below it predicted that “The Force Awakens” will “turn this thing into a giant flop.” Don’t space trolls have anything better to do? Purposefully cast against type, Fey plays Kate, a blowsy 40-something beautician with no sense of responsibility and a troubled relationship with her teenage daughter (Madison Davenport). Directed by Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”) from a script by the longtime “Saturday Night Live” writer Paula Pell, this raunchy-huggy comedy features, in keeping with Hollywood custom, a gaggle of well-known and well-liked sitcom and sketch-comedy performers being a little less funny than you want them to be.
Her estranged younger sister, Maura (Poehler), is the responsible one, a nurse and bleeding heart who compulsively adopts stray animals and who, as the movie opens, condescends to a construction worker she believes to be homeless by spraying sunscreen on him and telling him to have some moles checked. (Fans of the brilliant Web series “High Maintenance” will be cheered to recognize Ben Sinclair in the role.) When Kate and Maura’s parents announce that they’re moving, the sisters come to Orlando to clean out their childhood bedroom. They are allowed to swear more robustly than on network or basic-cable shows, to deliver sentimental speeches along with punch lines and to play with or against type as the mood suits. Both women are amazing, multidirectional comic talents, showcased indelibly by “Saturday Night Live,” recently coming off the classy observational grooves of “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation,” respectively. Rather than purging childhood artifacts, however, they wind up bingeing on memories and fond what-ifs, finally deciding to throw one final blowout of a party, with all their former friends in attendance. Fey (especially but not only on “30 Rock”) as an anxious overthinker using her caustic sarcasm as a weapon against both her own insecurities and the flakes and train wrecks who surround her.
While offering two giant talents a chance to cut loose with broader, rougher material than usual, at least for them, the jokes are cheap, the technique’s pushy and you end up waiting patiently for the end-credit bloopers. What starts as a dull grown-up affair of people sharing about menopause, vaginal rejuvenation and the sundry indignities of aging — “How can one person have two colonoscopy stories?” a character asks — eventually descends into a den of iniquity involving sex, drugs and a bizarre set piece during which a cute neighbor (played with appealing warmth by Ike Barinholtz) runs afoul of a musical ballerina figurine. If the outrageous bits of “Sisters” are meant to be howlers — and they admittedly are — it’s the film’s quieter moments that wind up being most memorable.
But the folks have sold the place without consulting their daughters, and “Sisters” takes it from there, with the initially sulky, then vengeful siblings — uptight Maura and hard-partying Kate — throwing a massively destructive house party, bringing back memories and high-school faces from the old days. Of course, it’s patently absurd to believe Fey, pop culture’s go-to hyper-accomplished multi-hyphenate, as a screw-up who brazenly bares her breasts at an onlooker while invoking “poppin’ fresh” cookie dough. When they were growing up — as attested to in passages from diaries they find in their old bedroom — Kate was hedonistic and adventurous, while Maura was prudent and prudish.
Ike Barinholtz is Poehler’s handyman love interest and he and Poehler keep it real, or real-esque, at least until the next bout of clumsily staged slapstick. (High/low point: a music-box-up-the-bum bit that evinces winces, not laughs.) Maybe I wasn’t in the mood. Director Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”) clobbers each scene with frantic reaction shots (what did I just see?) and when the pathos come, they come in truckloads enough to fill a Florida sinkhole. The movie recalls junkers such as “Due Date” and “Identity Thief,” studio comedies working on pure fumes and audience goodwill toward the marquee talent. It’s not fair to turn one misfire into a gender studies argument, especially in a year that gave us the guycentric failures “Get Hard” and “The Ridiculous 6.” But compared to so many varied and skillful female-driven hits such as “Bridesmaids,” or this summer’s “Trainwreck” and “Spy,” “Sisters” isn’t worth talking about.
First, though, in order for “Sisters” to become a comedy rather than the somber little indie melodrama it may secretly want to be, Kate and Maura have to hold one last big bash. Defying their parents and the snooty New York transplants who are buying the house, the sisters take to Facebook and summon their old high school crowd, and random other people, to the suburban split-level they call Ellis Island.
So is the movie-as-party, which is a slightly different creature. “Sisters” is a hybrid of the two, and also, therefore, a fairly standard specimen of modern post-“Hangover” commercial film comedy. It falls into the same category as “Neighbors” or “The Night Before,” which is to say it’s uneven, generally enjoyable, self-consciously naughty and also, despite drug use and jokes about anal sex, more concerned with reassurance than transgression. Kate reluctantly agrees to be the sober “party mom.” At first the guests glumly act their age, but then the tequila starts to flow, the music becomes loud, the joints are lit and the requisite funny stuff starts to happen.
The audience learns which groups Hollywood is still willing to treat as comic stereotypes, with the usual escape clause that the stereotypes themselves are being held up for mockery. Unlike small-screen sitcom characters, who can change slowly over seasons or not at all, the protagonists of movie comedies must grow, learn, change and forgive.
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