Sisters should have been a comedic homerun. Putting Tina Fey and Amy Poehler together in a movie is already half the bases covered, and to their credit, their chemistry is phenomenal. Of celebrity friendships, theirs is particularly well-loved and well-televised, the ultimate example of BFF goals. It makes sense the two would team up to bring their close-as-sisters relationship to the big screen, playing literal sisters (if the title wasn’t obvious). Sisters, unfortunately, doesn’t rise to the standards of the talent, or friendship, involved.
In a sea of mediocre bro comedies, Sisters (from Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore) is an easy one to root for; it would have been nice for a female-centric comedy to come out on top. On Star Wars weekend, no less. Instead, you get the sense that the ladies of sisters (Fey, Poehler, and screenwriter and fellow SNL alum Paula Pell) deserve better. The premise is incredibly simple, which is not a fault, but the anything-goes structure on such a contained set leaves as much room for failure as it does for creativity. And a lot—almost too much happens—when sisters Maura (Poehler) and Kate Ellis (Fey) find out that their parents (played by James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have sold their childhood home in Orlando, Florida, and decide to have one last hurrah by throwing a rager. 1980s style, with all their high school friends, their children and adult responsibilities be damned for one night.
Despite being sisters, Fey and Poehler play complete opposites, and Fey’s Kate, in particular, is the antithesis of her 30 Rock character Liz Lemon. She’s a cool, confident party girl (or at least used to be), and she’s never been shy with boys. She prefers to call herself “brassy” rather than “hot-headed.” In adulthood, she’s a bit of a mess—unable to hold down a job, she works as a self-employed hairdresser out of her apartment and she struggles to maintain a relationship with her teen daughter (Madison Davenport). On the other side of the spectrum is her recent divorcée sister Maura, who is awkward and earnest, the kind of person to apply sunscreen on a homeless person and hand out inspirational quote cards. She’s a lot like Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope, actually. The sisters’ differences are made comically clear in an early scene when they are cleaning out their shared childhood bedroom and share passages from each other their teenage diaries. Kate’s is full of hook-ups and pregnancy scares while Maura’s is about nerdy things and abstaining from drugs.
On the night of their big party though, the sisters decide to swap their usual personalities, Kate agreeing to be the designated sober party mom so Maura can “let her freak flag fly”—something she missed out on 20-plus years ago. Just as the Ellis sisters and their childhood friends are reunited under one roof again, the film, too, is a reunion in itself—how meta!—with a stacked cast of SNL players. Chris Parnell shows up early as one of Kate’s customers, the hysterical Kate McKinnon leads a carabiner-toting lesbian posse, Rachel Dratch shows up as a character that Rachel Dratch does best (a spin-off of Debbie Downer), while Bobby Moynihan plays the self-appointed class clown who’s still looking for affirmation from his schoolmates. Maya Rudolph, especially, shines as the salty mean girl Brenda, who keeps popping up uninvited and speaks as much with her flared nostrils as she does with her overly enunciated insults.
With a cast like that it’s literally impossible not to have funny moments, and Sisters does induce plenty of laughter. But most, if not all, of them are sharp in comedic writing as well as acting and the jokes feel far too elementary for their level of expertise. Sisters commendably proves that girls can be just as dirty as your boys (take that, Hangover and Jump Street) but the film suffers most during its body humor parts. The butt jokes alone! They’re funny when Amy Poehler fumbles to hit on her hot neighbor James (Ike Barinholtz) in a comically overdrawn segment about how he has a nice butt and then accidentally saying things like “I wanna get lost in that butt.” It’s dirty, but still endearing.
What doesn’t work is the equally (but painfully) overdrawn bit when a ballerina-shaped music box gets stuck in James’ rectum due to a foreplay injury. It turns and turns and turns while it plays Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and the punch line is that this is super awkward and of course something like this would happen to Maura when she tries to get laid. There are more than a couple painfully overdrawn jokes, which all add up to an exhausting 118-minute run time (for what could have been a short and sweet 90 minutes). Bobby Moynihan’s character gets this treatment too, after he snorts way too much cocaine and tells far too many jokes that fall flat. He’s seen hanging out while hanging out, drawing graffiti dicks on the wall with his own dick. Sure, the film is about a bunch of grown-ups having their one last stupid teen night, but the jokes themselves don’t need to be so amateur. As expected in a Tina Fey comedy, Asian jokes and sex worker jokes also abound, involving a Korean nail salon worker, Hae-Won (Greta Lee). It’s predictable, and if not offensive, only half-heartedly funny.
One stand-out from the party guests is wrestler John Cena, who plays the stoic drug dealer whose drug kit is filled with everything from molly to Flintstone gummies. Cena, who impressed in Trainwreck earlier this year, is really showing his skills as a comedic actor. Still, he doesn’t steal the show from Fey and Poehler. This movie would have been better with a heavier focus on just these two rather than bringing in their SNL entourage, as evidenced by the film’s funniest scenes—when Kate helps Maura hit on the neighbor or when they dig through their old bedroom or when they go to the mall to shop for party clothes, in a makeover montage gone wrong, before concluding that they need a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42. If the film lacks in comedic substance it’s at least carried by two stellar leads—they may not look like sisters but they sure are ride or die, and that at least makes for a pretty enjoyable watch.
Sisters is in theaters Friday, December 18.