Two adult siblings learn their parents have sold the family house when they’re told to show up and pack up all the junk left in their childhood bedrooms. Sad to let the last vestiges of youth go, the pair orchestrates one last party, a raucous blowout to remember the good old days. If this plot – thinly developed and overfamiliar – was the engine for a movie called Brothers and starred any two generic bros it would be insufferable, one more man-child comedy indulging carousing until reluctant maturity arrives. But it’s called Sisters (no relation to the DePalma of the same name), and stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, a great pairing for a fine gender swap of the usual potty-mouth party movie. The result is an injection of fresh perspective into a tired formula, a mix of sex talk and sentimentality that’s energized by its leads.
Only Fey and Poehler’s second film together in leading roles (after 2008’s pleasant Baby Mama), they’re a fine comedy duo. With a fizzy improvisatory approach to line readings, turning every punchline and extended bit into agreeably off-the-cuff coziness, they have sharp timing and a believable sisterly dynamic. Fey is the older sister, louder and irresponsible, freshly fired from a salon job, kicked out of the apartment where she’d been staying. Her careless approach to life has led to her teen daughter (Madison Davenport) pushing her away. Poehler is the little sister, an overeager perfectionist who has thrown herself into micromanaged routines as a way of avoiding stewing over a divorce, and worrying about their elderly parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin). Each sees a bit of what they wish they could be in the other – Fey wants a smidge more structure; Poehler wants to loosen up – but they cant say so. Instead, realistic levels of sibling rivalry manifest as admiration and antagonism going both ways.
Reunited in their hometown, under the same roof, they hatch their partying plan, to recapture good times they feel have slipped away. They have to go backwards to go forwards. The script by Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock writer Paula Pell sees the women’s immaturity without condoning it, allowing for a loose and agreeable non-judgmental atmosphere, especially as the house fills up with their former high school classmates, the ones who never left town and just settled down. They see right away these folks (Maya Rudolph, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, Samantha Bee, and more) have gotten older, and are dealing with adult problems and aging concerns. It doesn’t take long spending time at the house party for the guests to loosen way up (the booze helps, no doubt), the gathering getting progressively rowdier and more destructive as the night goes on.
Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore throws a decent bash, keeping the festivities hopping with pounding music and funny running gags. Fey tries not to drink and be the responsible one for once, while Poehler downs the intoxicants and flirts half-successfully with a sweet handyman (Ike Barinholtz). A desperately unfunny dope gets increasingly deranged. A muscle-bound drug-dealer (John Cena) stands still in the middle of the revelers, silently blinking. A sad woman zones out in front of a wall of clocks, contemplating her mortality. A mom gets drunk, an overgrown mean girl tries to sabotage, and a pedicurist (Greta Lee) takes advantage of an overflowing washing machine to start a slippery bubble fight. These scenes are shot for warm laughs and agreeable chuckles in simple bright sitcom staging, and feel like they could be flipped around without much damage to the overall arc.
It’s just one eventful collection of banter and silly sights, driven forward only by the gradually more destroyed house. But the result is a fine hangout with earnest good vibes. Fey and Poehler are fantastic ringleaders, both egging on and reigning in the absurdity as it goes along. They’re committed to looking pathetic, and as the party drags on it’s clear they’re going to hit rock bottom. (The movie ends up taking this idea very literally.) It ends with a pat moral conveniently tying up plot threads, but the trip there is a loose amusing time, turning standard R-rated comedy fare into a breezy sister act.