It requires superior artistry to take the rude, crude and socially unmentionable and make it feel upliftingly wholesome. Such is the magic of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the dynamic duo at the playful, prurient, occasionally perverse heart of Sisters.
As temperamental opposites who happen to be siblings, the women who for years have given the Golden Globes ceremony its zing — and who made the underpraised comedy Baby Mama such a revelatory pleasure — here spin an otherwise slender premise into antic, quippily lighthearted comic gold.
Purposefully cast against type, Fey plays Kate, a blowsy 40-something beautician with no sense of responsibility and a troubled relationship with her teenage daughter (Madison Davenport). Her estranged younger sister Maura (Poehler) is the responsible one, a medical nurse and bleeding heart who compulsively adopts stray animals and who, as the movie opens, condescends to a construction worker she believes to be homeless by spraying sunscreen on him and telling him to have some moles checked. (Fans of the brilliant Web series High Maintenance will be cheered to recognize Ben Sinclair in the role.)
When Kate and Maura’s parents announce that they’re moving, the sisters go to Orlando to clean out their childhood bedroom. Rather than purging childhood artifacts, however, they wind up bingeing on memories and fond what-ifs, finally deciding to throw one final blowout of a party, with all their former friends in attendance.
Directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), Sisters follows the recent Bridesmaids-inspired trend of R-rated comedies that trade on bawdy one-upswomanship in the form of vulgarity, sexually charged slapstick and gross-out sight gags. (Screenwriter Paula Pell has a cameo in one of the film’s ickiest examples of the latter.) By turns gently ribald and unapologetically filthy, this exercise in escalating fits of mortification often resembles a spin on Trainwreck, assuming that the summer hit had focused on Amy Schumer’s strained feelings about Brie Larson, rather than her pursuit of Bill Hader.
The change of focus here is a welcome one, and Fey and Poehler fall easily into synch with Kate and Maura’s slightly competitive but largely affectionate dynamic, with Kate egging on her good-girl sibling to let loose and live a little, even if that means that, for the Last Great Kegger of All Time, at least, it’s Kate who will have to be the designated Party Mom. A piece of visual humor regarding that label, involving co-star Rachel Dratch, is one of several highly amusing cutaways.
The bulk of Sisters revolves around the party, a bacchanal of epic and increasingly hilarious proportions. What starts out as a dull grown-up affair of people sharing about menopause, vaginal rejuvenation and the sundry indignities of aging — “How can one person have two colonoscopy stories?” a character asks — eventually descends into a den of iniquity involving sex, drugs and a bizarre set piece during which a cute neighbor (played with appealing warmth by Ike Barinholtz) runs afoul of a musical ballerina figurine.
If the outrageous bits of Sisters are meant to be howlers — and they admittedly are — it’s the film’s quieter moments that wind up being most memorable. A sequence during which Kate and Maura try on clothes bubbles and burps with off-color brio (“We need a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42,” Maura mutters). Of course, it’s patently absurd to believe that Fey, pop culture’s go-to hyper-accomplished multi-hyphenate, as a screw-up who brazenly bares her breasts at an onlooker while invoking “poppin’ fresh” cookie dough. The spectacle of her playing Kate is strictly of the Freaky Friday variety, while Poehler’s Maura feels like a far more spontaneous and natural extension of the sweetly daffy persona she’s honed since her days on Saturday Night Live.
Whatever characters they’re playing, Fey and Poehler can be counted on to infuse even their crassest moments with disarming likability. “Sisters” goes for broke in both directions, with winning, helplessly entertaining results. Even at its naughtiest, it’s never not nice.
Director: Jason Moore
Stars: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, Kate McKinnon
Rating: 3 stars out of 4
Rated R for crude sexual content, pervasive profanity and drug use.