It's not news that Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are funny; they are the most transcendent comedic talents of the last decade and a half. From impressive tenures on Saturday Night Live to creating and starring in two of the most compelling sitcoms (30 Rock and Parks and Recreation) of this young millennium, Amy and Tina have elevated themselves to a near godlike status in comedy. Has anyone since Mark Twain been as close to the comedic heart of this country? That is a long-winded way of saying how strange it is to see the duo going all in for what is functionally almost an SNL spinoff film. (About half of the significant roles are filled by SNL alumni or cast members and the script is written by longtime SNL writer Paula Pell.) It is strange to think that after taking on so many roles in the film world—from writing to producing, acting to hosting awards shows—the pair would return to their initial haunts. But in this case, the prodigal daughters' return should be welcomed.
Director: Jason Moore
Producers: Brian Bell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jeff Richmond, Jay Roach
Writers: Paula Pell
Cinematographer: Barry Peterson
Editors: Lee Haxall
Music: Christophe Beck
Cast: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Rachel Dratch, Samantha Bee, Matt Oberg, Kate McKinnon
US Theatrical Release: December 18, 2015
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
In structure, Sisters is nothing new. This is a traditional farce with goofy characters and sight gags. Amy and Tina play two sisters, Kate and Maura Ellis. Kate (Fey) is the older sister, a never-reformed party girl who is now an irresponsible cosmetologist with a teenage daughter. Maura (Poehler) is an overly responsible younger sister, conventionally successful (although recently divorced) and a social justice warrior—she has a rescue dog, gives to charity, and regularly takes care of Kate and their retired parents. The two are thrust unceremoniously back into their high school relationship when they return to their childhood home to help their parents clear it out before selling it, and—since this is essentially a high school comedy—they decide to throw a big party.
If this setup sounds unbearably clichéd it's because it is and a lot of the characters are not well defined. The rapport between the sisters is weak, especially in the expositional first act where their differing personality types don't seem to have affected their relationship at all, and most of the other characters are just stereotypes—the geek, the wannabe class clown, the party guy, the overly sexual couple, the goody two shoes. In fact, the characters are so rote it feels more like an SNL sketch than it does a film. And that's exactly why it works so well—this is like a sketch expanded to two hours.
Amy and Tina go all-in on physical comedy, unselfconsciously approaching topics like aging with an almost startling level of honesty. A scene where they try on party dresses and then bump their no-longer-flat tummies is particularly arresting (and funny). The writing is sharp and witty too, with a lot of good one-liners. ("I need a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42.") The whole concept positions the film well to apply a basic observational comedic approach to both aging and adolescence, leading to an interesting fusion of ideas.
And more than that, there's something terrifically funny about seeing a crew of middle-aged comedy veterans acting in what could be a John Hughes high school melodrama. The scenario—older people behaving like high school students at a house party—ends up being more funny strange than funny ha ha, but there is something poignant about it too. The juxtaposition feels like it belongs more to the world of high art than to broad comedy. You can imagine the photo series of middle-aged models dressed like this in a gallery somewhere.
But where the film really shines is in its ensemble cast. Bobby Moynihan has a thankless role as Alex; a guy who Maura complains is "always on." He flings out dozens of lame jokes but brings an energy reminiscent of Chris Farley in Wayne's World. (For those who don't remember, Farley is in only one scene but brings such charisma and bizarre intensity that he lights up the screen.) Moynihan's jokes may get lamer and lamer—including a minutes-long Scarface impersonation while holding a caulk gun—but his character is so present in every moment that he makes the tedium uproariously funny. His Drunk Uncle sketches have been one of the funniest parts of SNL of the last few years, but here Moynihan really proves he is a talented comedian. By the time he is drawing a penis on the wall after dipping his own into a can of paint he has stolen the show. Also strong are Kate McKinnon, Samantha Bee, and Rachel Dratch, who each bring a tragic character to their performance that makes the jokes more unique.
The film overreaches when it tries to get into interpersonal relationships. In addition to the sisters' relationship with each other, the conflict between Kate and high school rival Brinda (Maya Rudolph) falls flat, as does the cheesy romantic plotline between Maura and a handsome neighbor (Ike Barinholtz). But none of that takes away from the gags, physical and verbal, that punctuate nearly every moment of screen time.
And some of the jokes are truly astounding. A sequence in which Maura mispronounces a Korean name feels uncomfortably xenophobic until the whole thing is reversed and her Korean pedicurist (Greta Lee) struggles to pronounce the painfully waspy name "Maura." Not only is this the funniest movie of the year—it easily tops my list—but its writing is almost painfully smart. Opening the same weekend as Star Wars might be box office suicide, but if anything is able to weather the storm it might be this charming comedy.