2015 has been a fantastic year for female roles in films, either central female characters or great supporting roles. Amy Poehler was the main voice actor in one of the leading examples of that in Pixar’s Inside Out. Poehler is paired with close friend and fellow SNL alum Tina Fey for Sisters, a film that has some very good laughs, considerable comedic talent involved, but doesn’t quite put it all together.
Poehler and Fey play Maura and Kate Ellis, two sisters whose parents, played by James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, have decided to sell their childhood home. Maura, the younger sister, is more straight-laced and a problem fixer, someone who was always the designated driver or sober “party mom” during parties growing up. Most likely, this is in reaction to her older sister Kate being the party animal who never really had her life under control and can’t hold a steady job as an adult, despite having a daughter. The two of them return home to clean out their things from their parents’ house and decide to throw one last party with local friends they grew up with as a goodbye to their memories of the place, a party that gets increasingly out of hand.
Fey and Poehler are comedy geniuses and have a long history of working together, stretching back beyond SNL even, so their chemistry together is great. They feed off each other well and are clearly having a fun time together playing sisters. In a lot of ways Maura and Kate are polar opposites, and for purposes of the party they throw and because Poehler’s Maura has a love interest in James (Ike Barinholtz), the neighbor down the street, they do a bit of a switch where Maura gets to let loose and Kate tries to be the responsible one. Unsurprisingly, neither is very successful at this.
The film is written by Paula Pell, a long-time writer on SNL, and it also features several other SNL alums in Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, and Kate McKinnon. Jason Moore, who directed Pitch Perfect, is at the helm here. The story of two sisters coming home and throwing one last party is a good one, but the failure is in some of the execution. Too much of dialogue feels ad-libbed and some of the jokes really fall flat. In fact, the modulate between not hitting and hitting strong, with little middle ground. It’s a true hit or miss comedy, because when they jokes are funny, they’re really funny.
Bobby Moynihan’s character encapsulates this almost perfectly, his character, Alex, is known for telling really bad jokes and being loud and demonstrative about it. You can see the desperation and flop sweat in the character. Initially, it’s grating and shrill and one note, but then Alex does some drugs and his character goes to a whole other level and becomes one of the funniest characters in the movie.
The romantic story between Poehler and Barinholtz is something that is also a bit of a mixed bag. They show some decent chemistry together and there’s a very funny sequence between the two in her childhood bedroom, but there are some really unfunny, awkward ad-libs between the two that fall flat just as often as they are funny.
The supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s nice to see Barinholtz doing something much different than Morgan on The Mindy Project. Wiest and Brolin are serviceable as their parents, getting a very entertaining Skype conversation early on. Later though, Brolin especially, oversells a lot of his delivery. Maya Rudolph is a former childhood friend of Kate’s who turned into a bitter enemy in high school, and their back and forths are pretty great actually. John Leguizamo pops up as an old, slightly skeevy friend, who ends up bringing his drug dealer, Pazuzu (John Cena), to the party. The flirty moments between Fey and Cena are pretty hilarious. Samantha Bee and Matt Oberg play a couple who show up with their kids, get a baby sitter, come back and really party it up. Really, the strength of the film is in seeing these people in their late 30s-early 40s decide to have a night to recapture their youth, live it to the fullest, and desperately cling to that moment as long as they can.
Sisters provides enough laughs, but can’t help but feel like a bit of a disappointment considering how talented the people on screen are, not just Fey and Poehler. At times Sisters is really enjoyable. But it’s not consistent enough to be a truly great comedy. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are immensely talented comics who have had incredibly successful and critically acclaimed TV shows. They need a movie that is deserving of their considerable talents. Sisters taps into about 75% of what I think they are capable of. Here’s hoping they come up with something or find something that is commensurate with their skills.
Rating 3 out of 5 stars