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Review: ‘Sisters’ Starring Tina Fey And Amy Poehler

Review: 'Sisters' Starring Tina Fey And Amy Poehler

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have cultivated the image of an ideal friendship, supporting one another as they dish out witty barbs aimed at pop culture and their own foibles. That’s the stage version of their life, at least, and even though we all know it’s an exaggerated version of the real thing, it’s a nice fantasy, one we’re eager to buy. 

READ MORE: Tina Fey And Amy Poehler Reunite In The New Trailer For ‘Sisters’

Sisters” sells a slightly different version of that premise, with the two playing adult siblings who throw a giant party in their parents’ soon-to-be-sold home. The party is, of course, more loaded than a simple shindig. The event is really a way to reach for those youthful dreams that were never quite available decades ago — things like social acceptance, basic responsibility, and the easy confidence of casual sex — and which are still beyond their grasp decades later.

So, in other words, “Sisters” is an alternate form of the party movie we’ve seen time and time again. It’s the sort of thing that has become an annual tradition from major film studios. Until now, however, we’ve never seen a party movie focused on a pair of 40-something women. That, plus the well-established rhythm of Poehler and Fey, makes “Sisters” worth a look.

There’s just one problem. Well, there are a few, but the major one is that the first act is tragically unfunny. Early sequences, which could be a way to let us spend time with Fey and Poehler before the party begins, are more like a hallucination of a comedy with appealing and funny moments stripped away. This isn’t some alternate version of Fey and Poehler’s awards-show performances — imagine something more like tagging along for an afternoon of errands. This is the sort of film that will eventually get a lot of play on cable, and anyone who tunes in during the first half hour will be tempted to bail minutes later.

Don’t skip out, because once the party begins “Sisters” shifts into proper gear. Fey and Poehler are center stage for an increasingly brash and wild swirl of music, dancing, drugs, and awkward romance. They’re not always at the center together, as they trade off duties as ringleader, foil, and chaperone, but at least the jokes begin to work.

Director Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect“) weaves in a few dance numbers and broad physical comedy, and a high-energy approach to editing, along with a cast that includes John Leguizamo, Greta Lee, Bobby Moynihan, Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, and Jon Glaser, keep the film moving without lingering too long on any one player.

Poehler plays Maura, the responsible sibling. Her high school journal reads like the confession of a shut-in. When their parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) let Maura know they’re planning to sell the family home, she drags sister Kate (Fey) down to Florida to break the news to her gently, and maybe to stop the process. It’s not going to be an easy trip, because despite Kate claiming to be “brassy” rather than a hothead, she explodes at the slightest provocation.

Divorced, Maura has too much time on her hands. She makes inspirational cards and tries to help people in her life, but her desperate, unfocused energy doesn’t do much good. All she really wants is to make a connection with someone. In Florida she focuses on a hunky neighbor played by Ike Barinholtz, who may be crowned king of the party movie after he’s done bookending “Sisters” with 2014’s “Neighbors” and the forthcoming “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” Barinhotlz is charming but the reserved romance subplot between the two characters never entirely takes off. It does, however, give Poehler a chance to play something other than the straight woman, and that’s an entertaining change.

Oddly, given that the role was likely crafted with her in mind, Tina Fey isn’t quite right for Kate, the tragically tumultuous personality who is consistently the least-together person in the room. Kate is like Liz Lemon if all Lemon’s capable and resourceful qualities were erased. She’s very nearly Tina Fey’s version of Anger from “Inside Out“… which would probably be far more effective in a film with a more balanced ensemble.

The party energy helps smooth over some additional problems. Paramount among these is the fact that “Sisters” doesn’t often satisfy the desire to simply see Poehler and Fey riff off one another. “Sisters” has those scenes, but too many are locked in that leaden first act. Fortunately, the pair are open to setting aside any sense of decorum to get a laugh, and so a dress fitting, ill-fated from the start, finds the two rubbing bellies in too-tight club wear to mock the whole process. It’s great to see the two just playing, but they still need good material, and “Sisters” doesn’t have enough.

Most of the film pairs each lady off with other players. So we get Fey’s showdown with Maya Rudolph, playing a grown-up mean girl, and Fey rubbing up against John Cena, who is terrific as a drug dealer named after the demon from “The Exorcist.” Rachel Dratch is perfect as a particularly morose guest, and Bobby Moynihan threatens to wear out his welcome as a cringeworthy joke-teller who accidentally lets loose his Id.

In the end there’s nothing surprising in “Sisters,” except for the fact that it isn’t anything more than a party movie. Some big character growth is shoehorned into the final hour of the bash, and there’s no shortage of adults behaving badly. With Fey and Poehler as leads, however, there’s reason to hope for a more finely-honed edge. [C+]

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