Amy Poehler and Tiny Fey have been called the best comedy duo since Martin and Lewis. That may hold for fake TV news shows and emceeing awards programs, but their film resumes are rather spotty -- both together and apart.
Each had bit roles in "Mean Girls," written by Fey, and that was the high point. The less said about their first big-screen pairing in lead roles, "Baby Mama," the better. Now comes "Sisters," with their traditional roles swapped -- Fey playing the party-hearty girl and Poehler as the responsible one in dire need of cutting loose.
Written by longtime "Saturday Night Live" scribe Paula Pell and directed by Jason Moore ("Pitch Perfect"), "Sisters" demonstrates two things: women comediennes, despite the naysaying of some uptight fossil comics, can be every bit as raunchy and uproarious as any male. Second, the tendency for recent comedies to be wildly uneven and overlong is a gender-neutral affair.
The setup is simple: the Ellis sisters were famous for throwing legendary parties back in the '80s in their Orlando hometown. (Also my own; O-town is having a renaissance on film this year, with this movie, "99 Homes" and "Paper Towns" all set there.) Not much is going right as they enter middle age, with beautician Kate (Fey) unable to hold down a job or keep the trust of her teen daughter Haley (Madison Davenport). Maura (Poehler) is divorced, downbeat and coasting.
When they find out their parents (Diane Wiest and James Brolin, brazen scene-stealers) are planning to sell their posh childhood home in order to movie into a swingin' seniors village, the Ellis girls resolve to throw one last big bash before reality resumes its rightful place.
The parts of "Sisters" that work are a sort of eulogy for the spent youth of Generation X, those perpetually overshadowed by the Baby Boomers and their children, the Millennials. Almost the entire second hour is the party itself, a blowout of epic proportions that will involve music, drugs, sex (mostly interrupted or implied) and property damage.
It's fun to see these aging adults, whose rebellions were mostly confined to getting drunk and cutting class to go see "Breakfast Club," finally discovering their inner hellions. For one night, all bets are off, along with the shirts, and who cares if the bellies and chins are slacker than they once were.
The Poehler/Fey dynamic pays off, mostly, but then they keep bringing in their SNL buddies like Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph for supporting storylines that distract and drain. It reminds me of how Adam Sandler keeps digging up spots for David Spade and Chris Rock in his flicks, all of them clutching each other as they sadly circle the drain.
This is one of those movies that has more attitude than jokes. There are scenarios, not scenes. Some of the best stuff is when the women don't have to drag the plot forward, but can just hang out and goof on each other -- such as when they prepare for the party by trying on entirely age-inappropriate outfits.
"We need a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42," Maura quips.
There are love interests, of a sort. Ike Barinholtz plays the guy down the street also preparing to sell his folks' home, who gets sexually harassed by the Ellis sisters, but enjoys it. Wrestler John Cena gets recruited to show off his guns as a scary drug dealer with a soft side. ("My safe word," he instructs, "is 'Keep Going.'")
There are also stereotypical gags about lesbians and Asians that, if they were in a dude comedy, would get diced on Twitter by a legion of P.C. valkyries, and deservedly so.
"Sisters" isn't the lamest comedy of the year, but there is lots of competition for that spot. In an otherwise sterling year in cinema, the animated films and comedies have been decidedly lackluster. Some stars, and strains of humor, are simply a better fit for the small screen.