Film

‘Sisters’ Isn’t Brilliant, but Fey and Poehler Make It a Bash

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What’s quietly revolutionary about Sisters is that it’s a dumb party movie like a million others. The hosts score booze, invite over dozens of friends and frenemies, and then watch in horror — and a touch of self-congratulatory awe — as their house gets trashed. With the sunrise come lessons, hugs, and a hell of a hangover. We’ve seen this movie starring all ages (Project X to Old School) and social classes (The Party, The Great Gatsby) and with every backdrop from high school (House Party) to college (21 and Over) to weddings (Bachelor Party) to Armageddon (The End of the World).

What we haven’t seen is a dumb party movie starring two middle-aged women, or, as one of those women, Kate (Tina Fey), puts it, “two dusty old twats.” (The two actresses definitely aren’t, but they have the confidence to embrace harsh lighting and unflattering spandex if it’ll get them a laugh.) When her younger sister Maura (Amy Poehler) breaks the news that their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) are selling their childhood home, the two revisit the Orlando McMansion of their youth to pack up their bedrooms and throw one last rager — that is, if any of their old pals can get babysitters. (Or back out of their pre-existing plans to drink chardonnay and watch HBO.)

If you’ve ever seen a dumb party movie, you can predict what happens next. Once the drugs and booze start flowing, the evening is a mess: There will be fights, dancing and destruction, and probably foam from the ceiling. Yes, suds and secrets spill all over the house. Fey and Poehler even divide into typical archetypes. Fey’s Kate is the unhinged, oversexed loon while Poehler’s Maura has the self-sacrificial prudery of a kid who spent her life cleaning up after her older sister’s wreckage. Their shared bedroom is a shambles, a jumble of detritus that captures growing up girl: batons, jelly bracelets, Dep hair gel, ballerina jewelry boxes, Michael J. Fox posters, clarinets, Care Bears, Popples, and, of course, diaries. When they reread their childhood scrawl, Kate’s is a lurid account of sex and debauchery. Maura quotes Helen Keller.

During the film’s first third, you might get restless as director Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) establishes their wearily predictable dynamic. It’s tired stuff, but after two decades of friendship, Fey and Poehler know how to sell their characters’ bond. These stars share a comfortable shorthand that we see in the way they touch each other’s hair and communicate with quick glances, or the way Poehler, seated on a porch, casually scratches the stairs to beckon Fey to sit.

“It’s like a good marriage,” Poehler told Glamour. Make that an exceptional one, as when Poehler and Fey pair up, they generously egg each other on to look even funnier. Poehler may be the best straight-woman of her generation. She specializes in characters with clueless empathy, go-getter types who so exhaust themselves trying to please it’s as though they’re aliens from outer space sincerely aiming to fit in. Trying to bond with the neighborhood hunk (a charming Ike Barinholtz), Poehler puts on a tiny frown and asks, “So did you see your parents die?”

Poehler may be the best straight-woman of her generation.

Fey’s wastrel single mom is too thinly sketched to keep pace, but the film is packed with so many supporting characters that this isn’t fatal. John Cena is perfection as a taciturn drug dealer. (Can he please be in every movie?) Maya Rudolph plays the bitter mean girl determined to sabotage the sisters’ big night, John Leguizamo is an aging rager whom Fey describes as “under-the-underpass weathered,” Greta Lee is great as a wild manicurist, and Bobby Moynihan, as the That Guy of the party — the one who shows up first, yells loudest, entertains no one — is a one-man hurricane who gathers energy as the night goes on. I went from rolling my eyes every time he came onscreen to cackling before he could even speak.

Once the bash really gets going, I was swept up in the chaos and happily clicked off my brain. Screenwriter Paula Pell classes up the dumb stuff with a touch of depth — these revelers, mature-ish people with mortgages and children, savor this night because, as Poehler yelps, “We know we could die tomorrow!” Pell unabashedly writes for and from a female p.o.v., trusting that we’ll get the joke when Rudolph’s character claims she vengefully flushed a tampon down the toilet and Fey counters, “You’re pads all the way, and we know it!”

Make no mistake: Sisters isn’t a brilliant comedy. But it doesn’t have to be. Even the better dumb party movies are ranked somewhere between mediocre and pretty good. So sure, pour me a red Solo cup of Poehler and Fey dancing to Snow’s “Informer.” In fact, I’ll have another.

Sisters

Directed by Jason Moore

Universal Pictures

Opens December 18