Sisters, the new Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy serving as counterprogramming this weekend to The Force Awakens, uses star power as fuel. That’s better than nothing, especially with a charismatic supporting cast list torn from an SNL playbill (Rachel Dratch! Maya Rudolph! Bobby Moynihan!), but it’s a far cry from the tibanna gas-impregnated carbonite that keeps the Millennium Falcon aloft.
Directed by Pitch Perfect’s Jason Moore and written by Paula Pell, the film follows two sisters, party-girl Kate (Fey) and wallflower Maura (Poehler), who return to Orlando, Florida, when their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) announce they’re selling the old house. Now in their early 40s, Kate and Maura grudgingly arrive to salvage what possessions they can from their rooms, which are (symbolism alert) immaculately preserved. Kate, an irresponsible and glamorous freelance beautician, has just been evicted from the dung-hole apartment she shares with her frustrated teenage daughter (Madison Davenport). The sweetly uptight Maura is sublimating her post-divorce loneliness in misguided charity. (“I’ve been teaching Polenta,” her rescue dog, “how to smell diabetes,” she chirps.) In our first glimpse of Maura, she’s spraying a construction worker with sunscreen because she thinks he’s homeless. It is, of course, projection; Maura and Kate are the ones who must make themselves at home in the world, and the movie’s handling of that theme is as ham-handed as you’d expect from a film with the unironic line: “Each of these objects is a puzzle piece in the story of our life.”
Reunited in Florida, Kate and Maura decide to throw a huge bash as a middle finger to their parents and to the myriad disappointments of adulthood. So Sisters becomes a “this party is OUT OF CONTROL” movie, replete with man-children and woman-children mistaking coke for Splenda, inscribing the walls with graffiti penises, and getting up to disgusting anal shenanigans with a ballerina music box. You’ve seen most of it before, though Ike Barinholtz adds some melancholy gentleness as a love interest, and wrestler John Cena is hilarious as a laconic drug dealer. (“Do you have kids?” “I’m sure I do.”) As the party gets wilder, the arrival of a vindictive high school frenemy (Rudolph) allows Fey in particular to riff on the queen bee–ism that animated Mean Girls. And there are a few semipoignant reminiscences about the glories of youth, winkingly couched in silly slogans like “Be that you!”
But it doesn’t seem like a lot of thought went into Sisters, especially not about, well, sisters. Fey and Poehler, coasting along on their comic timing and easy rapport, read less as siblings than as besties who not only occasionally co-host the Golden Globes but also like dressing down sometimes. Save for one easily resolved conflict (played for laughs), they hardly fight; they don’t even really get on each other’s nerves. This is “sisterhood” in quotation marks, a gauzily loving female friendship. Kate and Maura never get to develop into complex characters, because Tina and Amy are too busy performing a choreographed dance.
In their 2008 collaboration Baby Mama Fey played the high-strung career woman while Poehler was a bubblegum-popping rebel. That the roles are swapped here is emblematic of how halfheartedly Sisters tries to subvert its tropes, or just not be a movie we’ve already seen 1,000 times. (Among others, the film borrows heavily from The Hangover, Neighbors, and Animal House.) But the movie features Greta Lee as a Korean manicurist-gone-wild, John Leguizamo as a sleazy liquor storeowner, and Kate McKinnon as part of a lesbian softball team. Even if all three characters have some witty or humanizing lines, the lazy characterizations prevent the movie from being as insightful as it could be about themes like maturity and sisterhood. Worse, they keep it perpetually just shy of funny.
But it’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler! Aren’t they the absolute best? Look, no one wants to criticize this pair of amazing comediennes—being forced into it by a mediocre pile of clichés makes me even crankier. The good news for all the genius squandered on this project is that Fey and Poehler’s chemistry will definitely put butts in seats. If you’re one of those butts, buckle up. Powered only by charisma, Sisters manages to launch, but it’s a bumpy ride.