Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s ‘Sisters': The writer and director reveal the real …
‘Sisters,’ with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, is not as funny as it looks.
When they’re together, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can throw one heck of a fun fest, even if their new comedy Sisters doesn’t live up to its laugh potential. Underneath the two friends’ showbiz collaborations, which have hopped from an indelible partnership on Saturday Night Live to movies like Mean Girls and Baby Mama to hosting the Golden Globes, is an unshakable bond.An occasionally funny coming-of-middle-age story, Sisters revels in its filthy side with the same glee as countless other guy-driven gross-out comedies.There’s a fine line between a comedy where the audience is having just as much fun as the cast – Ocean’s 11 springs to mind – and one where viewers are left in the dust; I’m remembering Horrible Bosses 2. Perhaps it’s because few have walked in their shoes. “There’s been many times where I feel like Tina was the only other person I could talk to about being the star and producer and writer of your own television show on NBC,” says Poehler, who stars with Fey in the new R-rated comedy Sisters, in theaters Friday. “With two toddlers,” nods Poehler, 44. “It just felt like a meeting of two, a lot of the times.
Sisters, the latest in an increasingly long line of female-centric gross-out comedies, isn’t as bad as Horrible – very few films without chipmunks in them are – but it definitely carries a vibe that says you’d be better off being cast in the movie than paying to see it. They get plenty of help from an array of role players, but the humor, mainly of the raunchy and older-parents-having-sex variety, lands in hilarious fashion only some of the time. 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.
One of the main problems with “Sisters” is that stars Fey and Poehler, while clearly having fun together, are not on the same page in terms of their performance choices. In Fey’s Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” and Poehler’s Leslie Knope on “Parks and Recreation” they created television characters that seemed to define their cultural moment.
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). Marketing campaigns for the flick acknowledge that other movie opening this weekend with a YouTube video Sisters: The Farce Awakens and the hashtag #youcanseethemboth. Maura Ellis (Poehler) is the good sister who lives a strait-laced life, the dependable one compared to Kate (Tina Fey), who can’t keep a job or a home for her daughter Haley.
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. Poehler is heartfelt and realistic as overly caring and concerned nurse Maura, while Fey performs a sloppily conceived caricature of trainwreck/cougar/party girl/single mom Kate. You can indeed see them both and if you don’t set the bar too high, Sisters’ mix of comedy and ’80s nostalgia bolstered by a strong supporting cast of SNL players (save for ultra-annoying Bobby Moynihan) could hit a sweet spot.
So when their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) decide to sell their house and give the daughters a weekend to clean out their childhood stuff, they leave it to Maura to break the bad news. Fey seems as if she’s in an “SNL” sketch, only halfway committed to the part, with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge air of irony, while Poehler seems like she’s actually in a movie. Upon hearing the news that their parents are selling their childhood home, both go postal and vow to throw a last-gasp rager at their old address. (Cue fortysomething debauchery fueled by a delivery of obscenely named drugs from John Cena.) Yes, Sisters has the valiant task of going up against Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the box office this weekend. Their reconnection leads to a nostalgia trip and a not-so-grown-up decision: In order to keep potential buyers from the place, the sisters want to have one last “Ellis Island” throwdown, with Maura finally letting loose — and hopefully hooking up with the single guy (Ike Barinholtz) down the street — and Kate not being the party-hearty one for a change.
The sisters are summoned back to their hometown of Orlando because their parents, played by Dianne Wiest and James Brolin, have sold their cherished family home and need their adult children to pack up their high school bedrooms, filled with ’80s detritus. Maura (Poehler), a divorced nurse, is a compulsive do-gooder with a condescending streak: She assumes all Korean manicurists are slaves and thinks anyone disheveled is homeless. 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. Paula Pell’s script is good for only fitful laughs in the lead-up to the big gathering and the post-shindig wrap-up, where everyone has to face up to being an adult.
Toward the end of the party, their dad admonishes the group of assembled adults to “go home before I call your children,” and that wordplay seems to be the premise that launched the whole film – what happens when the middle-aged crowd parties like they’re in high school? The film would like to fashion itself as a tale of rediscovery and rebirth, allowing that at any age one can still start fresh, yet it repeatedly bogs itself down.
By turns gently ribald and unapologetically filthy, this exercise in escalating fits of mortification often resembles a spin on “Trainwreck,” assuming that the summer hit had focused on Amy Schumer’s strained feelings about Brie Larson, rather than her pursuit of Bill Hader. But since Maura (Poehler) has long been the responsible one, she decides to get freaky and live it up, preferably with the help of hunky neighbour James (Ike Barinholtz of TV’s The Mindy Project). There are some serious moments in there, too, and Fey and Poehler’s dynamic pulls it off well — you’d be hard-pressed to find two other comedians today, of either gender, who are this natural playing off one another.
Thanks to a well-stocked drug dealer (John Cena), several aforementioned Koreans (led by a rather good Greta Lee) and a troupe of lesbian DJs (one of the film’s less successful jokes), the party spins out of control. This time out Poehler plays Maura Ellis, a caring, slightly controlling and somewhat recently divorced nurse who has often had to pick up the pieces for her chaotic older sister Kate Ellis, played by Fey.
Poehler recalls a precious few parties thrown at her childhood house in Burlington, Mass., where her parents still live. “I threw a couple of parties at my house. What follows is predictable, repetitious and the sheer volume of penis jokes shows that there’s no gender difference when it comes to this comedy style.
The film’s best asset is its central bash, which mixes the utter vulgarity of Animal House, the raucousness of Bachelor Party and The Hangover, and a whole lot of 1990s-style dance breakdowns. The lead pair play with the roles established by their turn in 2008’s “Baby Mama.” Poehler’s Maura has it together while Fey’s Kate is a troubled mess. Somebody ripped down a towel bar from my bathroom and threw a basketball at someone and they ducked and it put a dent in our cheap plywood basement doors. What starts out as a dull grown-up affair of people sharing about menopause, vaginal rejuvenation and the sundry indignities of aging 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. The quips and physical gags fly so furiously that quite a few don’t hit — like Bridesmaids and Todd Phillips’ entire filmography, Sisters is a movie made for multiple rewatches on HBO.
Maya Rudolph is amusing as the hated girl from school, Ike Barinholtz handles the role of the hunky neighbour with easy charm and John Leguizamo steals a few scenes as the stoner who never grew up. 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. Because I’m writing so often for a living, to do more writing would make me furious,” says Fey, who is knee-deep in Season 2 of Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
There are plenty of great comedic actors throughout, including Bobby Moynihan as a profoundly uncool friend who spirals into a hilariously manic drug haze. “Sisters” just doesn’t cohere as a consistent piece. Fey struggles to be believable as a troublemaker, working better in her more comfortable Liz Lemon register of frustrated and misunderstood, as when she blusters “I am not a hothead, I am brassy.” The script is the feature film debut for longtime television writer Pell, which comes through in its episodic, strung-together structure. The movie is stuffed with familiar comedy faces, including Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Greta Lee, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, Jon Glaser and more.
They don’t rule out a return one day, but “we’re happy,” Poehler says. “I’m bummed not to get to do it, because, it’s so fun but we don’t have to think of jokes over Christmas, that’s good.” 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. 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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