There's an old rule in Hollywood that if a movie was fun to make, it probably won't be as fun for the audience to watch. This holds true for the later Ocean's movies, and even some of the Beatles films, but it's certainly not airtight. The latest exception comes in the form of 'Sisters' - the first silver screen partnership between comedy legends Tina Fey and Amy Poehler since 2008's 'Baby Mama'.
The movie follows Kate (Fey) and Maura (Poehler), the sisters Ellis, two forty-somethings at different points of uncertainty in their lives, who return to their childhood home in Florida to discover that their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have sold it and moved into a plush community for retirees. The house is empty save for the sisters' shared bedroom, still full of paraphernalia from their youth, and a symbolic wall of clocks. After rediscovering their wildly differing journals - the free-living, free-loving Kate's full of tales of boys and booze, the studious and uptight Maura's mostly featuring observations about her rock collection - Kate convinces Maura to hold one final big 'Ellis Island' party in the abandoned house to make up for her misspent adolescence.
Coup De Main was lucky enough to attend a press conference for the movie in early December, held at a mansion in the Bel Air Hills overlooking Los Angeles, that had been dressed up to look like a party-wrecked Ellis Island. We got to chat to Fey and Poehler, their co-stars Maya Rudolph and Ike Barinholtz, as well as director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell.
'Sisters' is Moore's follow-up to box office smash, 'Pitch Perfect', making him, alongside Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, one of the men behind the resurgence in popularity and quality of female comedy films that has been seen in the past five years. Pell is best known as a 20-year veteran of the 'Saturday Night Live' writers' room, with 'Sisters' being her first full screenplay following contributions to 'This Is 40' and 'Bridesmaids'. SNL alumni are present throughout 'Sisters', from Fey and Poehler, to former cast-members Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch, and current players Bobby Moynihan and Kate McKinnon. Poehler described the “shared vocabulary” among SNL cast, with the working environment carried over to 'Sisters' in which the actors “take great pleasure in other people's jokes,” instead of competing for the biggest laughs. It's a team sport, which is apparent both in how the ensemble cast interact with ease and familiarity during the house-party, as well as the way the four actors bounce jokes off each other throughout the press conference.
Fey and Poehler describe their relationship as that of “chosen sisters,” as neither has a biological sister. “Our relationship is as old as Lourdes Ciccone,” quipped Poehler, referring to Madonna's daughter, “and as beautiful and talented.” Theirs is an instinctive chemistry with which audiences are incredibly familiar, from their appearances together on the SNL Weekend Update desk, to their three hilarious turns hosting the Golden Globes. The enigmatic pair carries the film, shining the brightest in side-splitting scenes in a Forever 21 changing-room and in an immaculate dance-sequence at their party, which Moore claimed they practiced on set “pretty much every day” during the shoot. It's hard to think of a pair of non-related actors working in Hollywood today, better equipped to play siblings.
If sisterhood is the packaging the film is wrapped in, there are different themes altogether at its core. 'Sisters' has many of the elements of a coming-of-age movie. Kate and Maura are both stagnating, reluctant to consider their uncertain futures, but keen instead to make the best attempt possible to relive the past. And they're not the only ones suffering from the cruel bitch of time: Kelly (Dratch), Kate's drunk high school friend and party-attendee, weeps in front of the wall of clocks and asks what happened to her life. It seems that adult life was not what they were promised in high school, and responsibility - of having children, spouses, jobs, mortgages - is a weight that drags these characters down, a weight that for one night they are able to shake off. Moore mentioned how he and Pell "tried to earn each reason" for the attendees to act as wildly as they do, but it comes down to the same core motivation for them all - their lives lack the vibrancy and excitement of youth and they will take any opportunity to have a bit of that back, even just for a few hours.
One of the movie's repeated motifs is the cute little notecards with which Maura attempts to raise her sister's flailing spirits. Printed on each one is a motivational quote, such as “create the life you love” and “success is desire in action.” We asked Fey and Poehler what the inspirational quote cards they'd give their lost, younger selves would say. “Time is a spaceship,” began Tina, before Amy added, “so why not take a ride.” A second option that Amy started was, “To live is to surf,” which Tina closed out with, “and many surfers drown.” That's where Kate and Maura are: in the water, watching the wave of responsibility coming towards them, and trying to figure out how to ride it, all the while wishing it wouldn't approach quite so fast.
Once the party gets underway, the children come out of the adults and the film takes a turn towards the wet and wild. Washing-machines overflow with foam, slip-n-slides are created using red wine, and characters fall through badly constructed ceilings. Such a party would require some stamina for a forty-something who hasn't cut loose like this for over twenty years, and it requires the same of the audience. It runs at over half of the film's length - upwards of an hour - and at times seems to be overdoing some of the broader humour. But when that humour is as funny as it is in 'Sisters', perhaps more is, indeed, more.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the way in which it subtly and cleverly plays with notions of responsibility and maturity in relationships between children and their parents. Kate's daughter seems to be the archetypal bratty teenager at the film's opening, but under that stereotypical exterior hides a wise, caring girl, despairing at her mother's regressive and irresponsible behaviour. Party guests are threatened with having their antics reported back to their children. Everything is in flux on this night, and age is just a number for these partygoers.
Maura's fumbling attempts to flirt with the neighbourhood eye-candy, James (Barinholtz), throughout the night provide some hearty laughs and an endearing streak. Barinholtz, best known for his role as oddball nurse Morgan on 'The Mindy Project', is a charming straight guy to Poehler's adorable and goofy flirt. So natural and real was the chemistry between James and Maura that, according to Barinholtz, Moore “would occasionally have to remind us that we'd just met.” It's the development of Maura and James' will-they-won't-they narrative that keeps the party scene moving and worthwhile, and gives the audience something to invest in.
Where 'Sisters' falls a little short is in its attempt to move into more emotional territory. It gets there, but nowhere near as successfully as in 'Bridesmaids', which made the bold move of dropping comedy almost entirely from a large chunk of its final act. That period of 'Sisters' lasts only a few minutes, and subsequently it lacks punch, feeling more like a brief pit-stop that the genre requires of the movie. But comedy is where Fey and Poehler's strengths lie, not drama, and they certainly don't fail to deliver on that front.
Special mention must go to Maya Rudolph for her glorious, outrageous portrayal of Brinda, Kate's high school nemesis and resident party-pooper. She's snooty, pretentious and, as Rudolph herself calls her, “a delightful dickhead,” telling her gal pals during a sophisticated wine-and-'Game Of Thrones' night that “when you use the actor's real names, you're not allowing yourself to live in the fantasy world that they've so lovingly crafted.” She's despicable, and yet Rudolph makes her an absolute joy to watch, contorting her face and voice this way and that during hysterical confrontations with the party hosts. All she wants is “to be let into the party of life,” Rudolph told us, “but she keeps having to sneak in and dance outside the window.” It's this relatable feeling that grounds Brinda for the audience and makes her such an enjoyable antagonist.
Both the film and the party around which it centres are an absolute riot. Sure, a lot of the humour is brash and broad, but there is plenty hidden below that drunken surface to keep more attentive viewers happy, meaning 'Sisters' is a crowd-pleaser with something for everyone. Fey and Poehler are, of course, a joy to see performing on-screen together, with Rudolph knocking every outrageous Brinda moment out of the park. At a time of the year when cinemas are full of dramas vying for awards season attention, 'Sisters' is a breath of fresh yet marijuana-tinged air, and bound to be the latest addition to what is becoming a lengthy and highly encouraging list of box-office-smashing female-led comedies to be released this decade.
'Sisters' is out in NZ cinemas on 7th January. Watch the trailer below…