by Philip Price
“Sisters” is a comedy of errors that works more because of its sisters than its errors. It's a movie that is amusing based solely on the appeal of its two lead stars rather than the thin premise that presents a situation made amusing by Amy Poehler's bungling and Tina Fey's incompetence. Of course, when one has stars as appealing and with as much chemistry between them as Fey and Poehler the premise doesn't have to be extravagant and even the execution doesn't necessarily have to be flawless-it just needs to give the two stars it's serving a solid jumping off point. In what seems like a move that should have been made a long time ago, Poehler and Fey finally find themselves playing sisters with their relationship being put to the test when their parents decide to sell their childhood home. Of course, given this is a light, rather breezy comedy things don't become too bogged down in the themes of material versus memories, but rather the polar opposites decide to throw one last party to commemorate all the good times they had on what they consider to be hallowed ground. What is great about “Sisters” is that it so clearly knows what it is and what it wants to be that it aspires to be nothing more than an excuse to watch Fey and Poehler rift for two hours while bringing in some of their closest “Saturday Night Live” friends to play along with them. Like that sketch comedy show, the material may not always be the strongest, but it can go a long way based on the ability of the players it is in the hands of and while longtime ‘SNL’ writer Paula Pell is behind this script (and one can catch how in tune Pell is with her stars at certain points) it is in the players that this material really finds life. The dynamic between Fey and Poehler is ripe for comedic opportunity and by casting each of them against type rather than going with the assumed roles it makes for a more interesting film despite the somewhat indulgent running time that could have been trimmed by 20 minutes in the middle. It's not that “Sisters” is bad or out of touch, but it's not a transcendent comedy, either (not that it was expected to be); the movie simply fulfills one's basic expectations and little more. That said, I had a fun enough time with it.
Poehler is Maura and Fey is Kate. Together they are the Ellis sisters born of Bucky (James Brolin) and Deana (Dianne Wiest) who reside in Orlando. There comes a day when Bucky and Deana are tired of the upkeep and clutter that mounts with owning the house they've had for the majority of their lives. They decide to put the house on the market and move into a luxurious senior citizen community where their cares can be reduced to zero. They break this news to the responsible daughter, Maura, through Skype where her worst fears of losing both her parents within a close amount of time conjure themselves up again. Maura is a nurse, recently divorced, and is constantly going out of her way to try and help people even when things don't turn out to be as she assumed. Her parents also ask Maura to take on the responsibility of telling her sister, Kate, because she doesn't take bad news well and they don't particularly want to tell her. And so, we meet Kate who, in short, is a mess. Kate is beyond immature with a career as a stylist who, at present time, is working out of an apartment she shares with someone she hardly knows. Kate has a teenage daughter, Haley (Madison Davenport), who leaves to stay with friends for extended periods of time given her mother can barely take care of herself, much less her. Maura's call to break the bad news to her sister comes at a perfect time given Kate's friend is given good reason to kick her out in the introductory scene and so both Kate and Maura pick up and take a trip to Orlando. Upon arrival they run into an old high school friend, Dave (John Leguizamo), sparking memories of their old "Ellis Island" parties. As they make their way to their parents' house they come across James (Ike Barinholtz) who they objectify based solely on the fact he's a sweaty man doing yard work. Once they arrive at their old home though, it's revealed their parents have already sold the house and that Kate and Maura are only necessary to clean out their childhood bedrooms.
Directed by “Pitch Perfect” helmer Jason Moore one can feel the overseeing of this film with the intention of being both a broad comedy that is easy to sell to the masses and the actual, R-rated product it ends up being. While it's somewhat jarring to see Fey and Poehler operate in this no holds barred world of comedy given we typically see them restricted to PG-13 territory it is both a help and a hindrance. Naturally, it allows them to go further with certain jokes and to say whatever they'd like without concern over language, but it also allows many comics to get lazy and rely on that punch line that can so often just be the F-word. Fortunately, Poehler's character is too timid and meek to use such language while Fey only enlists it when she's either really angry or really drunk and even then the actress uses it in contrast with something like "a-hole" instead of just saying "asshole" making her judgement seem all the more out of whack with what is conventionally expected. That Fey was willing to play this outlandish type rather than opt for the safe, buttoned-up Maura is the ultimate decision that makes “Sisters” worth seeing though, because despite Fey always being a better writer than she is an actress we've never seen her in this fashion before. While it was the obvious choice to go with given if they were to make Poehler the crazy one and Fey the conservative one again they would have essentially been making an extension of “Baby Mama,” that each of the actresses really immerses themselves in these personas make it all the more fun. That isn't too say either are doing transformative work, you still know it's Poehler and Fey bouncing improv and inside jokes off one another, but that they aren't so lazy to simply play themselves, but give real credence to their created characters and that character's arc is heartening and adds the necessary weight that when we see them come full circle it means a little something. Poehler is especially noteworthy as she is giving something fresh in every shot. One could simply watch her facial expressions the entire time and likely be just as amused as when trying to take in the full picture.
The stars are only as good as the support around them though, especially when it comes to selling the most subjective of material. With comedy it's always true that no matter how funny the central characters are there needs to be the necessary environment to set them up for situations in which that humor can flourish and, lucky for us, “Sisters” has its supporting game at top speed. In the first 10 minutes we get a Chris Parnell cameo, in the first half hour we're introduced to both Barinholtz (who you may recognize as the scene-stealer in “Neighbors”), acting as a great foil for Poehler's Maura as she attempts to let her freak flag fly, as well as Kate's arch nemesis Brinda (the always astounding Maya Rudolph). By the time we actually come around to the party that takes up the majority of the running time we have Leguizamo's creepy but well-connected Dave bringing in John Cena as drug-dealer Pazuzu and if you thought his bit part in “Trainwreck” was a fluke this will cancel any doubt as the guy is a comedic force both literally and figuratively. Then there are Maura and Kate's old high school friends that are populated by familiar faces like Bobby Moynihan as the guy who thinks he's funny but isn't, Rachel Dratch as the fun girl in high school that has become the depressed old woman ravaged by time, and Kate McKinnon as the class lesbian who lets them borrow her and her partner's lawn chairs for the party. Jon Glaser and Emily Tarver show up for a few minutes, but the real scene-stealer here is Greta Lee as Vicki AKA Hae-Won as a woman at the nail salon where the titular duo are getting pedicures before the party. Lee and Poehler's characters have an exchange about Hae-Won's actual name that further illustrates Maura's need to constantly help others, but in the attempt to pronounce Won's name properly things are lost in translation making for a scene that Moore allows to linger in order to let the ridiculousness of it all consume the viewer. Sure, I'd hoped a few set-ups might pay off better and that it didn't lag as much in the middle, but “Sisters” is great at pulling out the little things between Poehler and Fey that makes their chemistry palpable and that's all this film was ever going to need anyway.