Fey and Poehler’s ‘Sisters’ Delivers Hearty Laughs – and That’s Enough

This week, as you might expect, Flavorwire is devoting extensive coverage to the biggest and most anticipated movie of the year: Sisters, the new big-screen comedy starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler! Follow our coverage here.

Outside deadlines require it and traffic patterns dictate it, but it’s always dispiriting to see something late in the year that should’ve been on your year-end roundups. No, I’m not suggesting that Jason Moore’s Sisters would’ve shaken up my Best of 2015 list. But we just posted our collection of the year’s best movie moments, so you can only imagine my disappointment when, midway through the party sequence that takes up the back half of this Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy, the DJ queued up Snow’s “Informer” and the duo began a magnificently choreographed dance number that had this viewer all but falling on the floor. It’s funny as hell, exactly what you’re hoping for from a new movie starring one of our very few remaining comedy teams.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in "Sisters."

Once upon a time, you couldn’t walk through in a vaudeville house, radio studio, or soundstage without tripping over a comedy team; from legends like the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, and Burns & Allen to lesser lights like the Ritz Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, and Amos ‘n Andy, comic strength came in numbers. But once television took over, comedy became less about your partner than your co-star, and these days, aside from occasional exceptions like Key & Peele and The Lonely Island, they’re all but invisible.

Fey & Poehler didn’t quite come up as a team, though they found fame roughly concurrently on SNL, where they shared the Update anchor’s desk and, y’know, our hearts. As a big screen team, they’re closer to Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor or Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau – kept plenty busy by their own careers, but well aware that team-ups are perhaps more commercially lucrative and/or satisfying for audiences.

The context is helpful in terms of framing Sisters as a movie comedy, particularly when considering its flaws: namely, the dramatic subplots don’t work, and director Moore’s style is beige at best. Y’know who else’s films had clunky serious scenes and no directorial touch to speak of? The Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, W.C. Fields, Mae West — pretty much all of the great movie comics of the era, and it didn’t hurt their works one iota. What matters in those movies is if they’re funny. They are, and so is Sisters.

Theoretically, it also recalls another picture from a late-era occasional team: Neighbors, and not the Seth Rogen/Zac Efron movie, but the 1981 black comedy starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Much of that film’s publicity centered on its stars’ decision, in pre-production, to switch roles, playing against type with Belushi as the button-down straight man and Aykroyd as the out-of-control wild card. Sisters finds Fey and Poehler pulling a similar trick (at least when compared to the roles played in their last big-screen collaboration, 2008’s Baby Mama); Poehler plays the grounded, Liz Lemon type, the family fixer and responsible daughter, while Fey lets her freak flag fly as the wild child who disputes her reputation with a sharp, “I am not a hothead! I’m brassy!”

Fey’s obviously having a great time playing trashy/sexy, a note she doesn’t get to hit all that often, while Poehler merges the type-A personality of Leslie Knope with some fairly hilarious social ineptitude (her attempts to flirt with a romantic possibility, warmly played by Ike Barinholtz, are aces). Screenwriter Paula Pell, an old pal from SNL and 30 Rock, gets the give-and-take of their chemistry and leans into it; a sequence of the pair trading entries from their long-forgotten teenage diaries is a highlight, as is their scene trying on hot dresses (the teen salesclerk intoning, “That looks uh-mazing on you” to everything they try on is a nice touch).

The class-reunion vibe of not only the story but also its stars extends to the supporting cast, filled out with SNL players past and present; some get more to do than others, but all get at least a shot or two to shine. Maya Rudolph probably comes off best, if for no other reason than the way she pronounces the word “ludicrous.” And speaking of pronunciations, there’s a bit involving the proper pronunciation of names that’s initially funny, then keeps going so long that it becomes funny because of that, and then turns itself on its head and is funny again.

That scene, and a few others like it, don’t move Sisters in any particular direction – I’m glad to have most of them, but they also account for an altogether too-flabby 118 minute running time (that’s one thing you’ve gotta give a Norman Z. McLeod or Charles Reisner over Pitch Perfect director Moore – they got the job done in 90 or less). And there are other, lesser issues scattered here and there: the rushed clumsiness of the “heartwarming” resolution, the barely there characterizations of the parents, the #problematic nail salon stuff. But it boils down to this: Sisters is a Fey & Poehler picture, a comedy vehicle designed to showcase the skills and personalities of its stars, and for the most part, it succeeds. Everything else is just gravy.

Sisters is out Friday.