Sisters review

by Steve Pulaski

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are special kinds of actresses, mainly because they can elevate the cheapest and shallowest formula (their feature film “Baby Mama,” most “Saturday Night Live” skits, and even this film, to some degree) and make it feel lively and fresh simply by way of their aura. Their ability to inspire and incite carefree, feel-good laughs is incandescent, and the two even find ways to be competitive entertainers in a day and age where vulgarity is the common route to get noticed, especially for female comedians. While their latest film “Sisters” is R-rated for a reason, it’s admittedly a softer R-rating than, say, “Trainwreck” or “Bridesmaids.” It’s a film that innocuously compliments a girls’ night out, and will even impress most male audiences, if they can look past their subscription to the idea that “women can’t be as funny as men.”

In “Sisters,” Poehler and Fey play Kate and Maura Ellis; Kate has been carefree and fun-loving every day of her life, it seems, despite having a teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) and inconsistent housing arrangements, while Maura has always been the mediator for all of Kate’s troublesome antics and has been playing everything even safer following her divorce. The two are in need of some kind of bonding, since Kate spends most of her days jumping around different jobs while her daughter goes away on long-trips, and Maura’s best friends are her parents (James Brolin and Dianne West).

The opportunity comes knocking when their parents reveal they are selling their childhood home in order to live smaller, and request that both sisters go to the house to clean out their bedroom. In the mix of cleaning it out, Kate and Maura read their diaries, and while Kate’s includes graphics of penis sizes and her collegiate debauchery, Maura’s contains information about band concerts and being the designated driver at social gatherings. To combat Maura’s lack of excitement, the two decide to throw a party at their house and round up all of their old friends for another throwback bash, known as “Ellis Island.” Predictably, the party gets out of control and is only further burdened by an unexcited, older crowd of their former classmates and Kate’s enemy Brinda (Maya Rudolph), whose contempt for Kate has her attempting to stop the party at every turn.

Directed by
Jason Moore
Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph
Release Date
18 December 2015
Steve’s Grade: B

While “Sisters” does a nice job of retaining the focus on the shenanigans of Amy and Tina throughout the film, it also doesn’t hesitate to profile the other souls at this party, particularly Alex, played by “Saturday Night Live” star Bobby Moynihan. Here’s one of the brightest and most refreshing screen personalities I’ve seen in a while, especially for a secondary character. Moynihan plays a character who Kate effectively calls “exhausting;” he’s that pudgy kid from high school who was an inherent outcast and always tried to be a comedian in front of a plethora of people that (a) didn’t care about what he had to say and (b) laughed only because they felt bad for him. Alex’s humor and brazen comedic efforts in the film, everything from snorting Stevia in efforts to pretend to be Tony Montana and repeatedly running around on a sugar high throughout the party, reflects discernible loneliness and a desire to be accepted a face value. But, make no mistake, for Moynihan is a laugh riot in this film, almost channeling Chris Farley-level energy and aura with every setup he’s granted. Writing, deadpan monologues, and deep insights aren’t his thing; he seems to prefer the route of being gifted a vague character and running away with him, which is exactly what he does in “Sisters” to tremendous effect.

Other secondary performances from the likes of Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz playing James, Maura’s love interest, and John Leguizamo as the neighborhood sleaze work because they are understated roles played by actors with the gift of comedic timing. The only supporting performance that doesn’t work, as expected, is that of John Cena’s, playing a muscular drug-dealer that basically stands and broods until approached. Cena is getting to be a really cheap use of a supporting role in comedies, especially after his tragically unfunny role in “Trainwreck.” It’s not that Cena’s a bad actor, but he’s never given anything that shows him off more as a hulking meathead with a low-IQ and a high tolerance for pain. His presence, and his role here, are complete wastes of time.

With that, however, “Sisters,” as a film, bears a very natural aura, much like Amy and Tina. It’s exuberant without being too overwhelming, funny without trying too hard or succumbing to tasteless, vulgar territory, and frequently funny in a way that never feels like screenwriter Paula Pell, a sketch writer for “Saturday Night Live,” is trying to get too many one-liners out at once. The only time Pell sacrifices her laidback, effervescent comedic charm with her writing is when she becomes too obsessed with jokes that run on for too long like a bad “Family Guy” sketch (consider the scene where Maura is trying to properly pronounce her Korean manicurist’s name “Hae-Won,” or when Maura tries to flirt with James but gets stuck on the phrase “the butt of the joke” and takes it too literally). These kinds of things, when amplified, take away from what “Sisters” does so well, which is exist as a piece of light but consistently amiable comedy.

The moral of “Sisters” as a film is quite simple: while Amy and Tina pack quite a wallop and deliver their brand of humor in an assertive and exceptional manner, a strong supporting cast of Bobby Moynihan and Maya Rudolph also manage to steal the scene and work largely off of Paula Pell’s freeing and nonchalant script. If there’s a comedy event of the season that should be accepted on the surface and packs much more quality material than most non-Apatow comedies can at an excess of one-hundred minutes, it’s undoubtedly “Sisters.”