D: Jason Moore / 118m
Cast: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, James Brolin, Dianne Weist, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch
Making the transition from TV to movies can be tough. For every Mike Myers or Johnny Depp, there are dozens more actors and actresses who make the leap only to find their particular schtick isn’t as popular with cinema audiences. Often it’s down to their choice of material, sometimes they make the mistake of doing exactly the same thing as they do on their TV show, and sometimes there’s just no explaining why their movie doesn’t click with audiences. Many persevere, trying time and again to make it work and be successful, and just as many fail.
Welcome then to Sisters, the latest attempt by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey to translate their TV personas into box office success. It’s a mix of teen party with adults, sibling dependency, and awkward romance, and it struggles to make any of these aspects even remotely entertaining. The teen party with adults is the worst of Sisters’ many creative decisions. Maura and Kate Ellis (Poehler, Fey) are middle-aged sisters. Maura is a nurse whose need to help others can be suffocating, and who hasn’t been in a relationship for some time. Kate is a nail technician who has a teenage daughter, Haley (Davenport), but no man, and has trouble keeping it together. When she loses her job it coincides with an invitation from their parents (Brolin, Weist) to come visit their childhood home before it’s sold.
Maura and Kate are horrified by this, especially as the invite has really been about them coming to clear out their room. Left to get on with it, Maura and Kate decide instead to have one last party in the house, and set about inviting all their old schoolfriends – with the exception of realtor Brinda (Rudolph) – along with a neighbour, James (Barinholtz), that Maura has the hots for. Everyone turns up as expected but as everyone is as middle-aged as the sisters are, the party isn’t as exciting as they’d hoped for. The intervention of local drug dealer, Pazuzu (Cena), leads to a much wilder, much more enjoyable party, and inevitably, the house suffering some extreme wear and tear. And then Kate learns that she and Maura stand to benefit from the sale of the house. But by now it’s too late to put a halt to all the damage that’s been done, and matters are made even worse by the efforts of Brinda to crash the party, and the imminent arrival of Maura and Kate’s parents.
There’s no denying that Poehler and Fey are two very fine comediennes – on TV. With Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock respectively, both women have carved out hugely successful careers for themselves, and earned a sackload of respect and admiration in the process. But on the big screen the results haven’t exactly been that impressive. Fey’s attempts have included Date Night (2010), Admission (2013) and This Is Where I Leave You (2014), while Poehler, who admittedly has been trying for longer, has struck out with the likes of Spring Breakdown (2009), Freak Dance (2010), and A.C.O.D. (2013). The idea of them appearing together as sisters sounds like a great idea on paper (and the roles of Maura and Kate were written specifically for them), but it’s the movie itself that stops them from making much of an impact.
There’s plenty of scope to be had from making Maura and Kate as different as chalk and cheese – Maura is the dependable, slightly strait-laced sister, Kate is the carefree, mainly irresponsible free spirit – but without any friction between them until very late on, most scenes they appear in until then tend to focus on highlighting those differences to the point where even someone whose not even watching the movie will be aware of them. But still they’re no cause for disagreement or arguments or any kind of falling out. As a result, the movie plods along, content to find humour in the behaviour of secondary characters such as grinning hound dog Dave (Leguizamo), and mildly depressed Kelly (Dratch). But even then the laughter is thin on the ground, and has to be propped up by some actually quite funny verbal barbs courtesy of Kate.
And once the party gets really started, and several chocolate brownies have allowed the guests to loosen up, the movie encounters another problem. It wants to be a raucous comedy at this point, a la American Pie (1999), but as that series discovered when it arrived at American Reunion (2012), the idea of adults behaving like teenagers isn’t inherently funny, and something that audiences don’t really want to see. So the behaviour in Sisters is toned down to such an extent that whatever shenanigans or hijinks do happen, they’re about as funny as watching Amy and Tina trying on party dresses while a shop assistant drones that their outfits suit them (when of course they don’t).
Another part of the problem with Paula Pell’s script – and by extension Jason Moore’s direction – is that early on, scenes drag on past their proper length, partly in an effort to provide both actresses with equal screen time, and partly in an effort to wring out some extra laughs from situations and scenes that don’t support many laughs in the first place. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t funny it places, because it is, it’s just that it’s not funny consistently. It also tries too hard, and to the point where it tries to provoke a laugh from Weist using the C-word. When your comedy movie can’t manufacture enough laughs to maintain interest over nearly two hours, then you’ve got a problem.
As the sisters, Poehler and Fey are likeable enough, but even they can’t do much with a script that lacks substance as well as sustained humour. Rudolph pulls a lot of faces to make up for the one-note character she’s been given, Brolin and Weist have to settle for being constantly annoyed by their daughters’ behaviour, Leguizamo is wasted in the kind of minor supporting role he takes on every now and then, and Moynihan, tasked with playing the kind of too loud funny man whose jokes are always awful, is saddled with mimicking Al Pacino in Scarface (1983) in a charades scene that feels like it’s never going to end. Only Cena as the taciturn drug dealer (whose safe word is “keep going”) avoids being hampered by the material, and the movie picks up whenever he’s on screen.
Sisters would be a better movie if it was twenty minutes shorter and if Pell’s screenplay had concentrated on laughs rather than giving its two main characters “life lessons” to learn. Viewers looking for a great time in the company of two very talented comediennes would do better to try their respective TV series’, while anyone unfamiliar with their TV work, but thinking of giving the movie a try on the off chance that a movie featuring Poehler and Fey must be good (right?), should take a hasty step back and save themselves from being disappointed.
Rating: 5/10 – sporadic laughs do not a comedy make, and Sisters struggles repeatedly to get the mix of visual and verbal humour to work effectively, leaving it feeling and looking dull and uninspired for long stretches; best viewed as a valiant attempt to give Poehler and Fey their big screen breakthrough, but otherwise a movie that fails to deliver both for them and for the audience.