A comedy dream team is as easy to recognize as it is hard to come by. In 2004, Amy Poehler joined Tina Fey at Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update desk, and it’s been clear to audiences ever since that the two longtime friends are a comedy partnership powerhouse. But their collaboration has been most effective when they’re playing themselves (Weekend Update, hosting the Golden Globes, joint interviews, paying homage to one another in their respective books), so their new feature film Sisters is a bit of a gamble, even aside from the fact that it has a little competition at theaters this weekend. Luckily, the film is strong enough that even while it leans heavily on Fey and Poehler’s chemistry, it has virtue beyond their mere presence.
Sisters is the story of Kate (Fey) and Maura (Poehler) Ellis, two very different and incredibly close sisters who decide to have one last raging party in their childhood home before their parents sell it. The set-up allows Maura, who has always fallen into the chaperone role, to finally let lose, and it requires Kate, who has no job, no home, and a teenage daughter, to step up and learn to keep things under control. The role reversal and covert party premise are nothing new, but the fact that the Ellis sisters are in their 40s adds a slightly different twist.
One of the best decisions screenwriter Paula Pell has made was to embrace an “R” rating and an adult audience. Pell and director Jason Moore push Fey and Poehler further into raunchy comedy than we’ve seen them go before, and it’s what makes Sisters work better than 2008’s Baby Mama. There’s heart in this movie, but it’s buried under a helluva lot of jokes about sex, body parts, and tampons. In applying what we think of as frat humor to two grown women and their equally grown friends, Sisters subtlety asks how we get from drunken high school revelry to cardigan-wearing parents whose Facebook profile pictures feature low-fat Mexican casserole. And then there’s a penis joke or five, because after a couple of decades on SNL, Pell’s humor is quick and not terribly subtle.
Sisters also draws on a reliable crew of supporting comedians to round out the film. Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project) is a charming love interest, and Maya Rudolph, Bobby Moynihan, and Rachel Dratch effectively check the SNL veteran boxes. The most fun surprise in the supporting cast is John Cena, cast as a weirdo badass drug dealer. Cena pulls off some of the best lines in the movie, and between this role and his appearance in this summer’s Trainwreck, the one-time WWE star is redefining himself in 2015 as a comedy tour de force.
Tina Fey is also doing something a little different here. We all know from 30 Rock that Fey can write and deliver sharp, smart dialogue. But Sisters gives her a chance to do a broader, more physical comedy that we’ve seen her do before, and she’s impressively natural as the delinquent yang to Poehler’s goodie-two-shoes yin.
Sisters isn’t perfect. Although there are a lot of jokes, not all of them land. The party scene goes about ten or fifteen minutes too long. Maya Rudolph seems to be trying just a little too hard. But Fey and Poehler together are a sight to behold, and the clever dialogue helps keep the movie engaging. Plus, it’s not every day that you see a film with two renowned comedians that requires an eighteen-person stunt team. The Force may be elsewhere this weekend, but the fun is with Sisters.