I never thought I would laugh so hard at someone getting a toy ballerina stuck up his ass.
Yes, Sisters does rely on this kind of humor. And yes, it also relies heavily on the fact that it stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who are essentially incapable of failing to produce, at the very least, a chuckle with each joke–no matter how crass or cheap their humor is.
Unfortunately, this production is not one of their cleverest collaborations. I would probably say that 2008’s Baby Mama, the last movie in which they appeared together, went for a slightly higher caliber of humor and was overall a smarter, sharper result of their combined hilarity. Sisters takes a similar approach in some respects: One irresponsible, flaky woman and one miserably uptight woman must spend time together, and eventually the two reconcile their differences in a heartwarming but still humorous final scene. Yet the cookie-cutter plot doesn’t work as well this time around.
Sisters tells the story of two—you guessed it—sisters, Maura and Kate Ellis (Poehler and Fey, respectively), who find out, to their utmost despair, that their parents are selling their childhood home, and that they must clean out their room in preparation for the new occupants, a snobby young couple from New York. They decide, as all responsible adults would, to throw an enormous party with their high school acquaintances while their parents are spending the night in their new condo.
Unsurprisingly, not much has changed since high school: Kate is still a party girl who refuses to take on any responsibilities (a tendency that now places her daughter in a constant state of exasperation), and Maura is still the prudish, awkward sister in charge (who’s now a dog-obsessed divorcee).
None of their former classmates have changed, either. Sisters brings together a group of well-known comedians, many of whom established their careers on Saturday Night Live, to play a series of high school tropes: Maya Rudolph as the deeply insecure mean girl, Bobby Moynihan as the lame jokester, and Rachel Dratch as the sad, lonely girl. Add 20 years, a fateful bag of Adderall mixed with Molly, and a lot of tequila, and you have the series of antics that is Sisters.
Characters from outside the Ellis sisters’ high school appear as well—John Cena, for example, as a Hulk-like drug dealer selling a disorienting medley of hallucinogens, which he lists in an impressive, increasingly outlandish monologue. There’s a crew of cool lesbian DJs led by Kate McKinnon, pulled from a younger generation of Saturday Night Live performers, and a gaggle of Korean nail salon workers who like to party (whose stereotyped behaviors were somewhat problematic).
Yet the rapport between all these seasoned comedians, especially between Poehler and Fey themselves, is barely enough to carry the movie. While it’s always a pleasure to watch what probably was a lot of unscripted, comedic dialogue between actors who have developed their careers side by side, their chemistry starts to get old as they lean on it more and more throughout the film.
Luckily, however, one addition to the Ellis high school crew is a role filled by fresh talent. The film showcases the chops of rising comedian Ike Barinholtz, best known from his off-putting yet surprisingly charming role as ex-con-turned-nurse Morgan Tookers on The Mindy Project. Barinholtz was also in Neighbors with Zac Efron and Seth Rogan and will appear again in Neighbors 2. You may notice a trend in his past roles, and it’s one of which Barinholtz himself is fully aware. He summarizes in an interview with BuzzFeed: “Everyone I’ve ever played has basically been a really dumb sexual deviant in some way.”
That is, until now. In Sisters, he plays James, the intelligent, funny, good-looking neighbor on whom Poehler’s character instantly develops a crush. Cute, klutzy attempts at flirtation ensue.
But Barinholtz is the only performer who’s truly taken a step forward with Sisters. While Fey and Poehler remain impossibly adorable, thoroughly funny, and sassily empowering all at once, they’ve reverted to a significantly more dumbed-down brand of humor, and many of their cohorts have done the same. Barinholtz, on the other hand, has used the film as an opportunity to break out of the “weirdo” role, and he’s done it smoothly and successfully.
Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri wrote the following of Sisters: “Sometimes, even flaccid, uninspired comedies can win you over.” And I will admit that this one did win me over; it’s hard to resist the charm of Fey and Poehler’s dynamic duo, and the all-star cast undeniably includes some of the funniest, most talented people in comedy.
But Sisters hasn’t done anything new, and it hasn’t done anything exciting. Its plot is straightforward and unsurprising, never parodying the clichés it often employs. It doesn’t push seasoned actors out of their boundaries. It seemingly never intended to, instead offering a good time and a few laughs.
If we can learn anything from Sisters it’s this: watching a group of experienced comedians play out the raucous antics of a high school reunion gone awry is tear-inducingly funny, but it does not a movie make.