Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are great individually and even better together, so it’s not a surprise that they’re very funny as polar opposite siblings in Sisters. Playing diametrically opposed characters allows the duo ample opportunity to play off each other with a repartee cultivated during years of working together on Saturday Night Live, The Golden Globes, and beyond. As brought to life by Fey and Poehler, everything about the two main characters works. Occasionally background noise from secondary players is brought too far into the forefront, bloating the film’s runtime and temporarily taking the focus away from its best assets, but their charm sustains the silliness.
Fey is the immature, unemployed manicurist older sister Kate Ellis. Poehler is Maura, the thoughtful nurse always out to assist others. Though early scenes establishing these easily identifiable traits are unnecessarily bulky, the personalities mesh (and clash) wonderfully when the Ellis girls reunite at their childhood home in Orlando. Tasked with cleaning out their old room after their parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) sell the house, Kate and Maura attempt to recreate their high school days by throwing one of their famous “Ellis Island” parties. With old classmates reunited, new friends brought into the fold, and a potential love interest for Maura in the form of neighborhood newbie James (Ike Barinholtz), the rager grows to epic proportions.
Upon first inspection of the home, it seems a bit odd that the girls’ bedroom hadn’t been turned into a rec room or den at some point in the last two decades, and it’s even stranger that a Michael J. Fox poster remains on the wall and an industrial-sized jug of Dep hair gel still sits on the nightstand. But these and several other period references speak to the specific charm of Sisters. The humor isn’t driven solely on presenting the past as a collection of identifiable relics, it’s used to solidify what made (and makes) the Ellises tick.
From funny/horrifying readings of their old dairies to their selections when shopping for the party, the props have purpose in the shaping of the comedy and the conflict. There are also plenty of in-between moments that are great, whether scripted by SNL and 30 Rock scribe Paula Pell or ad-libbed by the leads. A one-liner involving Forever 21 is one of the best, while Poehler attempting to pronounce an Asian manicurist’s name while remaining polite is hilarious.
There’s also an opportunity for Fey and Poehler to break their usual types. Fey does erratic and aimless just as well as she does studious and sarcastic, and Poehler is allowed to drop the buttoned-up routine when big sis begrudgingly takes on the role of “party mom” and stays sober. It’s a fun twist to break the routine and provides more color as the disasters of the shindig mount.
That mounting becomes a bit of an issue when certain antics of the partygoers grow repetitive and the wrapping up of familial business becomes a necessary chore. Bobby Moynihan gets several scenes as a lame and drugged-out wannabe jokester when just a couple would’ve been sufficient. Maya Rudolph is good as Ellis nemesis and leopard jumpsuit wearing Brinda, but not all of the baggage that gets unpacked in that relationship is compelling. A couple of the supporting roles work with just the right amount of attention, including John Cena as a drug dealer with a face tattoo and Rachel Dratch as a depressed drunk.
Thankfully, when the party’s over, Sisters underplays the final act sentiment, but it has a little trouble finding ways to resolve various plot strings. Entanglements involving Kate’s daughter (Madison Davenport) feel overly manufactured, while Maura’s romance goes from sweet to slapstick to standard as required. Despite all the fat that could’ve been trimmed, Sisters remains enjoyable thanks to the chemistry between Fey and Poehler and their dynamic performances.