For many of us who enjoy seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in just about anything, Sisters reminds us that even their massive appeal can only carry a film so far. Pleasingly frenetic as opposed to consistently uproarious, this comedy is powered by their reliably enjoyable rapport, but you may wish that director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell hadn’t constructed such a hit-or-miss, slapdash story around them. If Sisters is what it takes to bring these two stars together, maybe we shouldn’t be too greedy. No—scratch that: We should.
As you might have deduced, Sisters is about a pair of siblings, Maura (Poehler) and her older sister Kate (Fey), who are each facing a crossroads as they reach their 40s. Socially conscious but timid Maura has been divorced for two years, but she still hasn’t had the guts to try the dating world, while brash Kate is a single mother raising a teen daughter (Madison Davenport) who’s frustrated that Mom can’t hold onto a job. When Maura and Kate’s parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) blithely announce they’re selling the family home in Orlando, the sisters decide to throw one last rager—and if some unresolved childhood issues happen to get stirred up, well, that wouldn’t be a surprise, now would it?
Coming off the success of Pitch Perfect, Moore again has made a film that thrives on the energy and camaraderie of women, and one of Sisters’ strongest suits is that it refuses to paint Maura and Kate as conveniently diametrically-opposed siblings. Maura may be more demure and Kate more blustery—practically a role reversal from the actors’ previous film, 2008’s Baby Mama—but their sisterly connection ensures they have more in common than not. Pell, who wrote for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, has a keen eye for such sibling, and even adult, interactions.
There’s an emotional subtext to the blowout party that’s Sisters’ centerpiece—a farewell to the siblings’ youth and the home in which they grew up—but Moore struggles to balance the sentimental and the raucous. For the most part, the raucous wins: Dick jokes and other outrageous gags dominate the film, and the success rate is just barely north of 50 percent. What’s funny is that, despite being veteran comics, Fey and Poehler have never really made their name through lowbrow humor. Embedded in the culture’s imagination first as the witty, snarky hosts of SNL’s Weekend Update, they went on to steer two of NBC’s finest recent sitcoms, Fey with the savvy 30 Rock and Poehler with the touching Parks and Recreation. Therefore, it’s not surprising that while Sisters’ jokes range from sophisticated to gleefully sophomoric, neither performer feels particularly well-suited to the film’s propensity of crass, dopey bits.
So if Sisters doesn’t have the heart or punch of these women’s sitcoms, it falls on their shoulders to enliven middle-of-the-road material. They do so with sufficient pizzazz. Truth be told, Fey draws the short straw, playing a hopeless screw-up who isn’t particularly charming or hilarious. For better or worse, Fey may be permanently intertwined with her 30 Rock alter ego Liz Lemon, the impossibly flawed but lovable and intelligent career woman who transcended Mary Tyler Moore Show clichés. She can’t pull off the trashy, boozy Kate, but she does throw a lot of energy and good cheer into her attempt. Meanwhile, Poehler has an easier assignment as the heartfelt, responsible, easily flustered Maura, who’s not that far removed from Parks & Rec’s Leslie Knope—or, for that matter, Inside Out’s equally sunny and overconfident Joy. Poehler brings her bubbly personality to Sisters, and her character’s nervous courtship with a kindly neighbor (Ike Barinholtz) is the movie’s most dependably entertaining subplot.
Moore has surrounded his leads with a solid supporting cast of familiar comedic presences: Lots of SNL vets (Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch) pop up alongside current cast members (Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon) and actors like Samantha Bee and Jon Glaser who comedy fans will easily recognize. (Also, delightfully, wrestler John Cena proves that his scene-stealing turn in this summer’s Trainwreck was no fluke: He pulls off the same feat here as a stoic drug dealer.)
Very few of these bench players have much to do in Sisters, either straining to bring life to one-note characters or helping to fill in the backstories of these siblings’ younger years. But like with Fey and Poehler, we like having these amiable actors around the margins of Sisters as the filmmakers throw every joke they can think of against the wall to see what sticks. Still, it’s telling that Sisters never peaks higher than when its two stars are just riffing off each other or cutting loose with an impromptu dance. Tina and Amy are the selling point that will get plenty of people into the theater in the first place—and they’re just barely enough to ensure we stick around until the ending.
Director: Jason Moore
Writer: Paula Pell
Starring: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, James Brolin, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Dianne Wiest, Madison Davenport
Release Date: December 18, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.