Movie Review: Sisters
By Ben Gruchow
December 21, 2015
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.