Film Review: ‘Sisters’

Most Anticipated Movies of 2015

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are in smashing comic form in this pleasingly ludicrous women-behaving-badly farce.

A certain sketch-driven shapelessness is a common weakness of many “Saturday Night Live” reunion films. So the smartest thing — of many smart, simultaneously silly things — “Sisters” does is to build in a central setpiece in which manic mugging and scattershot filth are positively de rigueur: the overextended, wildly over-intoxicated house party. Even outside the catastrophe-laden soiree, however, a generally festive spirit runs through writer Paula Pell’s raucous feminization of “Step Brothers,” finally giving the irrepressible Amy Poehler and Tina Fey a big-screen vehicle that feels sympathetically tailored to their comic gifts. If “Pitch Perfect” helmer Jason Moore contributes little in the way of cinematic ingenuity, perhaps he was loath to get in the way of his inspired players: When the laughs flow this freely, a filmmaker’s first responsibility is to keep the camera steady.

Opening on Dec. 18 — thus brashly targeting the demographic for whom “Stars Wars: The Force Awakens” may not necessarily be the most anticipated event of the year — “Sisters” could reap slower but steady benefits from Universal’s counterprogramming strategy in a market not currently over-furnished with grown-up (or at least immaturely adult) laffers. For Poehler, in particular, the pic reps an exciting test of her movie-headliner capability as she pursues pastures beyond “Parks and Recreation.” Irrespective of ultimate B.O. totals, it’s one she aces on screen, gamely carrying an arc that also extends her romantic-comedy credentials past the self-aware irony of last year’s “They Came Together.” Yet as winningly dorky as her romantic rapport is with “The Mindy Project’s” Ike Barinholtz, it’s a mere sideshow to her perfectly synced double act with Fey — a partnership far better served here than it was in 2008’s modestly amusing “Baby Mama.”

Where that film positioned Poehler as the goofball to Fey’s more tightly wound protagonist, “Sisters” puts its leading ladies on a more equal footing, with several narrative reversals cannily shifting the script’s zanier comic demands between them. As the script’s opening beats introduce Atlanta-based chalk-and-cheese siblings Maura (Poehler) and Kate (Fey), it might appear that Poehler has been put on straight-woman duty opposite Fey’s hot mess. A responsible career woman and recent divorcee, Maura is first seen earnestly trying to provide aid to the homeless; that she can’t tell the difference between a hobo and a construction worker, however, hints at farcical reserves of social ineptitude to come. Jobless beautician and single mom Kate, on the other hand, has more immediate problems: Broke, evicted and regarded with weary contempt by her college-age daughter, Haley (Madison Davenport), she resolves to move in with her parents Deanna (Dianne Wiest) and Bucky (James Brolin) in Orlando until her luck picks up.

There’s just one snag: Without warning, Deanna and Bucky have sold the family home in exchange for a compact retirement condo. Charged with clearing out their childhood memorabilia before the new owners move in, their aggrieved daughters — both, it turns out, overly tied to the family apron strings in different ways — are sent into a sulky tailspin. In a fit of pique and misdirected nostalgia, they hit on the least logical course of revenge imaginable: Jointly throw the house party to end all house parties, or at least to halt one house sale.

From that rather basic premise, the ill-conceived bash builds comic momentum via its haphazard invitees, mostly consisting of Maura and Kate’s old high-school classmates — among them John Leguizamo’s skeevy alcoholic, Bobby Moynihan’s desperately clowning perma-nerd and (by force rather than invitation) Maya Rudolph’s hilariously snotty ice queen. As the guest list spirals out of control, so, inevitably, does the event. Outside additions include a hulking, facially tattooed drug dealer (John Cena), a hard-partying troupe of Korean nail-bar workers and an affable neighboring handyman, James (Barinholtz, thoroughly game even as the, er, butt of a key gross-out gag), for whom Maura clumsily has the hots.

Needless to say, whatever can go wrong, does. Moore and editor Lee Haxall crank up to chaos to a fevered breaking point, affording an amped-up ensemble ample room for full-bore hysteria and more incidental moments of comic bliss: Perennial MVP Rudolph, priceless even when standing silent, somehow wrings a tear-inducing laugh simply by name-dropping a D-list celebrity fragrance, while Wiest sells the most inspired streak of on-screen swearing since Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop.” (Among the lower-billed names, Emily Tarver deserves special commendation for her supremely uninvested retail assistant.) Inevitably, not everything lands, with Moynihan’s extended man-boy shtick perhaps weighing most heavily on a none-too-trim 117-minute running time.

Still, it’s heartening to see energetic supporting players accommodated so generously in a vehicle otherwise decisively steered by its two smashing leads, whose ping-ponging chemistry doesn’t drop for a minute. Even under the ludicrous circumstances, Poehler is oddly touching as a lifelong wallflower finally trying on the debauchery she denied herself in her teens; meanwhile, it’s a treat to see Fey, so practiced in flustered type-A mode, hang loose as a sorely overgrown adolescent being overtaken by her own daughter. Beneath the film’s entertainingly crude hijinks, there are actual human stakes here, as the two sisters recognize in each other the growing up they themselves need to do — though Pell’s script keeps the hugging and learning to a reasonable minimum. In a multiplex landscape still cluttered with manchild-oriented bromances, it’s still all too rare to see belated female coming-of-age given such snappy treatment. (If the definitive female term for “bromance” doesn’t yet exist — sororimance, perhaps? — “Sisters” should prompt its invention.)

Tech credits, a little disappointingly, are on the televisual side: Barry Peterson’s lensing is certainly bright enough, though barring a few establishing aerial shots, the pic (actually shot in New York) makes no attempt to capitalize on its Floridian location. Having the most fun below the line, happily, is costume designer Susan Lyall, whose garment selections are often rich comic punchlines in themselves — not least in a garish mall-makeover sequence that prompts the film’s single wittiest, most all-encapsulating line: “We need a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42.”

Film Review: 'Sisters'

Reviewed at NBC Universal Screening Rooms, London, Dec. 8, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 117 MIN.

Production

A Universal release of a Little Stranger, Everyman Pictures production. Produced by Tina Fey, Jay Roach, John Lyons. Executive producers, Amy Poehler, Jeff Richmond, Brian Bell. Co-producer, Eric Gurian.

Crew

Directed by Jason Moore. Screenplay, Paula Pell. Camera (color, widescreen), Barry Peterson, editor, Lee Haxall; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisors, Julianne Jordan, Julia Michels; production designer, Richard Hoover; art director, Audra Avery; set decorator, Stephanie Bowen; costume designer, Susan Lyall; sound (Dolby Digital), Tom Varga; supervising sound editors, Sean McCormack, Kami Asgar; re-recording mixers, Kevin O'Connell, Bob Beemer; visual effects supervisor, Eric J. Robertson; visual effects, Mr. X Gotham, Factory VFX; stunt coordinator, Victor Paguia; line producer, David Bausch; associate producer, Betsy Rosenbloom, assistant director, Adam Escott; casting, Kerry Bardem, Paul Schnee.

With

Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Ike Barinholtz, Maya Rudolph, Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, Bobby Moynihan, John Cena, Greta Lee, John Leguizamo, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch, Santino Fontana, Britt Lower, Kate McKinnon, Samantha Bee, Matt Oberg, Emily Tarver.

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  1. hendo337 says:

    Just saw it DVR’d from HBO. I had no expectations. I thought it was hilarious. I thought they played average middle class women that grew up in Florida to a tee. The reviews other than this are terrible for no reason. I guess it wasn’t enough glamour and hipster for the liberal coastal people.

  2. Cindy says:

    Hated this movie! The worst movie I have ever seen and I have seen a lot of horrible movies in my time.
    I guess the worst scene was when Tina Fey threw a hissy fit in the front lawn at their parents house. Although, Bobby Moynihan’s role was pretty stupid as well. Women trying to be Will Ferrell and John Reilly just DOES NOT WORK!!! The whole movie was terrible!!!

  3. Sisters does have a familiar plot and weak dialogue, but the acting duo transcends it with enough charisma and chemistry.

  4. Harrison says:

    Guys, I was sotally tober while watching this movie and it still was impossible for me to enjoy it. For real, it was like splicing 10 different snl skits into a long, horrible movie about two grown women (with the mentality of 16 year olds) trying to throw a rager in their hometown. It was stale. It was formulaic. Most of the jokes were horribly dragged out, or reused, or just straight up NOT FUNNY, and I’m a stoner and will usually laugh at anything that’s on TV. The brief bits of seriousness that were put into the movie were honestly funnier than parts that I was supposed to laugh at, just from the sheer juxtaposition of absurdity and drama. Watching Tina and Amy acting like fools, feeding of each other in a never ending torrent of unamusing nonsense, it makes me feel sorry for the generation that they are trying to represent. But at least they didn’t resolve the movie by showing a montage of them cleaning up the house.

    Oh wait, that was how it ended.

  5. amanda says:

    i thought this movie was hilarious!

  6. Pamela says:

    I didn’t expect much, so I ended up laughing–a lot. Silliness reigned. It’s good to be silly sometimes! bah humbug to those to cool to chill and have a good time.

  7. Paul T. says:

    This was a horrible movie. We are fans, and were hoping for something like Bridesmaid’s or their original hit. It was so juvenile. The premise was ridiculous and seemed to have no thought process. Then the jokes were so predictable, which of course made them not at all funny. We walked out, because we couldn’t wait any longer for anything positive or humorous to happen. It just so happened we walked out during that ridiculous house party they were throwing, and so I’m sure nothing funnier or better could be expected. This Variety writer is obviously in the tank for Ms. Fey. A MUST MISS!!

  8. Richard Burns says:

    Tina Fey and Amy P owe me money back. This was a double dupe from Hollywood. Bad movie made by people who are supposed to know better. It’s like they flipped me the bird the whole time, knowing they took my money. You’re better off cutting your finger nails too short and dipping them in rubbing alcohol.

  9. dee says:

    according to the trailer, it’s a horrid attempt at comedy as usual by Tina Fey and her ‘sidekick’ … so yeah, no thanks .. they couldn’t even make bank this week after it opened.

  10. Marie says:

    Weirdo is right, and besides all that 24/7 promotion for that movie is EVERYWHERE and annoying. From websites like this, when you go to the mall, etc. I was thinking going to watch it but I’m starting to change my mind. I’m getting tired of hearing about it.

  11. Bill B. says:

    It’ll be a hit. Not everyone is interested in Star Wars. Not everyone wants to fight the crowds. Not everyone can see Star Wars at once and it’s smart marketing to provide an entirely different type of film at that same time.

  12. Weirdo says:

    Good to hear your positive review :) I don’t think I’m alone when I say the trailer almost totally dashed my excites, so at least now I have hope

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