Movie Review: Sisters
By Ben Gruchow
December 21, 2015

They've just introduced another guy to his second wife.

As a fan of both actresses, I don’t remember exactly what it was that put me off about the last Tina Fey/Amy Poehler cinematic team-up of Baby Mama back in 2008. I think it ended up having something to do with an unusual and interesting premise regarding surrogacy being wrapped up into such a standardized, neutered comedy of metronomic beats and character resolutions. Fey and Poehler felt hamstrung by the material. The previews for Sisters, written by the wry and sardonic Paula Pell, and given a less-restrictive R rating, indicated that the follow-up would at least be sharper.

That part does come to pass, at least; Sisters utilizes Fey and Poehler’s estimable comic gifts in much more substantial and colorful ways. That’s about what we have to go on, because the movie around them is really no better and no worse than what the two dealt with in their last outing. The story - in broad outline - is about two siblings of wildly divergent levels of maturity, deciding to throw one last big party in their childhood home before it’s sold off. The two have something of a history of throwing raucous parties when they were growing up, with one having a tendency to spearhead them and make the biggest name for herself (I would say there’s some fun in finding out which sister it is, but the movie’s ads have helpfully spelled it out; the conceit of knowing which sister is “the bad one” is kind of endemic to selling the movie as it is, so it’s not like the marketing team likely had much of a choice in the matter).

There isn’t a whole lot about the movie’s start or end that you can’t hypothesize from that logline, anyway, and Pell and director Jason Moore wisely don’t even try to pretend that there’s much in the way of plot intrigue or stakes. Instead, we’re mostly seeing processions: party guests/old school friends played by guest stars who have a reasonable likelihood of hailing from Fey’s, Poehler’s, or Pell’s tenure at Saturday Night Live. After that’s dispensed with, it’s a procession of watching the party progress and develop; we know that things must spiral out of control at a certain point, so the early moments where things appear lifeless and low-energy engender a waiting game rather than suspense.

At least the party itself gets off that easily; the rest of the storyline is basically one 118-minute waiting game. We know more or less how things are going to end up, and as it turns out, suspense is pretty crucial toward making both Fey and Poehler’s comedy styles work. This past weekend, the two co-hosted SNL, and part of their opening act was an original Christmas song that veered radically from typical banal cheer to grim and oppressive Biblical history lesson. There was a sense of improvisation to the routine, a feeling that the routine could legitimately go in any direction at the whim of its participants, and that kind of unpredictability is what gives Fey and Poehler their spark as a partnership.

There are moments of real humor in Sisters, and the screenplay’s not exactly lacking for zingers, but from the moment either of the two principal characters walk on-screen, you can make out a general trajectory for both. There are personal lessons to be learned here, and not the most vicious punchline in the screenplay will divert those lessons. The movie’s territory gets more well-worn and less funny as it winds its way toward the end, and the final minutes are surprisingly vague and aimless for a movie that’s spent most of its running time being sharp about its conventions.

Both actresses are at their best when they’re able to exert control and moderation over the direction any given scene is taking. Fey’s Kate Ellis is given the most to do in this regard (Poehler’s Maura is largely around to play the straight arrow), and she fares much better with scenes that enable her to take charge than with those in which she plays a loose cannon. The latter happens far more frequently, though; there are moments like an interminable scene in a nail salon, involving Fey looking for a job and numerous botched attempts at proper name pronunciation, that cry out for a merciless editor.

This is as good a time as any to point to the fact that Sisters is surprisingly poor at stitching together the visual elements of setup and payoff. There are moments that appear to want to build toward something, like when Kate squeezes a large plastic bottle of hair gel in celebration, and we see a nice, emphatic close-up of the gel on the floor. We’re primed to expect someone to slip in it; that’s just the way the joke works. Yet nothing happens in regard to this for the next hour or so in screen time. When something does occur as a result of the hair gel (which really should have dried by that point, but whatever), we need to cut to it again to be reminded that it’s still there. The time for the joke has come, gone, and been forgotten. Each element of that particular joke is set up with an obvious insert shot to the element, and it saps the moment of any timing or pace.

This doesn’t happen with every joke, but it’s more than you’d expect. I choose to chalk this up to the ongoing issue of comedies to take up approximately 30 percent more screen time than they really need to in order to be effective; last June’s Spy could have tightened up its runtime by 15 minutes and been more than 15 percent better, and I suspect that Sisters would have flowed better at 100 minutes instead of 120.

Against the spotty physical comedy and joke setup, the movie does get to employ the services of half a dozen or so walk-on parts. These are the participants in a movie who don’t have to worry about context or follow-through, and here, they’re responsible for the movie’s biggest laughs. Rachel Dratch and Kate McKinnon tend to dominate the few scenes they’re in; Dratch’s trademark deadpan delivery may not be the freshest thing in comedy, but it’s pretty foolproof as technique. And McKinnon demonstrates that even safe and toothless jokes about lesbianism can land with enough commitment.

Neither of them, though, can hold a candle to what Maya Rudolph and John Cena do with the sparse material given to them. In the few minutes that their respective characters - a bitter ex-classmate and a drug dealer with a startlingly comprehensive array of goods - are allotted, they very nearly overshadow the principals. Cena displays a surprising gift for comic subtlety; in an early scene with Fey and Poehler in a Big Lots, Rudolph laces every line and expression and movement with precisely the right amount of conflicting anger. Sisters crackles whenever these two are on-screen, and I wish there’d been more of them.

That’s really the problem: The movie is called Sisters, it stars two of the most versatile female actresses working now, and yet it still can’t find a way to make them the most interesting characters on screen. That it works at all is testament to Fey and Poehler’s level of investment and commitment. This much the filmmakers got right: without the two of them, this would be faintly unpleasant and difficult to endure, as opposed to something that’s just kind of static and occasionally funny in a promising way.