Sisters Review: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler Have “Effortless Chemistry,” but Comedy Is Only “Fleetingly Fun”

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters Universal Studios

In theaters Friday, December 18

2 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)

First, a special plea to two of the wittiest entertainers of our time: You are better than drunkenly mud-wrestling each other in a sinkhole!

And yet, that’s just one of the embarrassing juvenile mishaps brought to you by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a low-rent comedy. Sorry for the buzzkill. Obviously we all want to lap up the ultimate anti-Oscar, anti-Star Wars holiday flick. And Fey and Poehler are so winning just being Fey and Poehler that they could give Harrison Ford a case of the giggles. But their third onscreen collaboration is . . . just okay.

They play sisters — a stretch, but let’s go with it — still emotionally stuck in their adolescences. Fey is Kate, a flailing beautician and single mom. She’s had a million men, and she's rocked them all. On the other side of the maturity coin is Poehler’s Maura, a super-uptight Goody Two-shoes. She’s a woman who spritzes sunscreen on a homeless man sitting outside just because she cares.

The Ellis siblings return to their suburban Florida home and are aghast to learn that their folks (Dianne Weist, James Brolin) have already sold the place. Almost everything is already boxed up. All those memories, just packed away. Quickly they decide to commemorate this seminal event by throwing an epic rager on “Ellis Island.” Yup, tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1989.

John-Leguizamo and Maya Rudolph
John-Leguizamo and Maya Rudolph in Sisters Universal Studios

There will be booze. Plus, a bratty nemesis from high school (Maya Rudolph) who keeps trying to sneak in, a gaggle of Asian pedicurists doing synchronized dancing (long story), a lesbian brigade (led by Kate McKinnon, yay), and a potential love interest for Maura (Ike Barinholtz). Kate’s even willing to stay sober and be responsible for once so her sister can get hammered and get it on with him.

Like most parties, this goes on for too long and is only fleetingly fun. You’ll crack up during one titillating moment between Poehler and Barinholtz and an ill-placed ballerina music box. But because the debauchery is a given, it's not particularly amusing when this sprawling, immaculate house gets destroyed literally from the ground up. (Ironically, one of the great gags is at the start of the bash when the now-middle-aged Gen Xers soberly stand around and show one another pics of their kids on iPhones. Funny cuz it’s true!).

Amy Poehler and Ike Barinholtz
Amy Poehler and Ike Barinholtz in Sisters Universal Studios

As for the hostesses themselves? They don’t always serve up the goods. Fey as a potty-mouthed rebel and Poehler as a wide-eyed prude only jibes in a four-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. In a nearly two-hour film (as flimsy as it is, plot-wise), the overly broad characterizations come off as painfully forced. Bravo to the two actresses for showing that Seth Rogen and his buddies don’t have the movie market cornered on gross-outs and alcohol-fueled rowdiness. That’s not enough. With a screenplay from fellow SNL vet Paula Pell, they can't overcome the lame material here. (A subplot with Fey's daughter is particularly cringe-y.) Where’s Liz Lemon with a rewrite? Come to think of it, when are Fey and Poehler going to script their own screenplay?

It’s a testament to the stars’ talents that they squeeze hearty laughs out of their effortless chemistry. In preparty mode, the two are hilarious riffing off each other while trying on wildly inappropriate dresses (“I need a little less Forever 21 and a little more suddenly 42!”). And thanks to a still-intact shared childhood bedroom, they get to dance around to a classic '80s jam and bask in the past. (You, too, had a Michael J. Fox poster on the wall back in the day, admit it.) In those endearing scenes, we get to see the inimitable Fey and Poehler we know and adore.

Too bad we couldn’t just RSVP to that.

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