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