There’s a scene in the middle of Sisters — the Amy Poehler and Tina Fey buddy comedy that’s opening against Star Wars this weekend, if only to prove there is life in galaxies outside of George Lucas’ — in which Fey and Poehler, as the titular siblings, are debating whether or not to break out their timeworn “apple butt” dance in the middle of a party. Fey, as older sister Kate, falters for a second, wondering if the choreographed routine will make them look uncool. Poehler’s Maura shuts her down instantly: “It’s cool because we’re doing it, and we’re cool.”
This is exactly why Sisters works, too. As a long-time Baby Mama apologist — Fey and Poehler’s first attempt at headlining a movie together, which critics and audiences alike weren’t totally enamored of back in 2008 — I’ve always argued that Fey and Poehler could be doing literally anything and I’d watch, certain it would be hilarious and engaging simply because it involved the two of them. Whether the two of them are skewering the news behind SNL‘s “Weekend Update” desk, playing an uptight businesswoman and her trashy surrogate (as in Baby Mama), or silently laying bricks (I haven’t seen them do this yet, but I stand by it), Fey and Poehler’s chemistry is effortless and unassailable. Whatever they’re doing is cool because they’re cool, and because it’s clear that they’re always having an insanely good time together, riffing off one another and delighting in the consistently fizzy and sharp comedy that springs from 20-plus years of close friendship.
Sisters is no exception to this rule. Written by SNL alum Paula Pell and directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), the comedy manages to be both delectably raunchy and genuinely moving. Cleverly, the two have switched character types this time around: As Kate, Fey is the hot mess, a beautician who burns off her clients’ eyebrows and leaves used waxing strips lying around her friends’ apartments. Poehler, as the recently-divorced Maura, obsessively takes care of others so she doesn’t have to worry about her own shit, working as a nurse and, in her free time, offering sunscreen and cheesy aphorisms to homeless people. Despite their surface-level differences, the two are close — the movie smartly sidesteps any easy conflicts and stereotypical female competitiveness in favor of letting Fey and Poehler just love the hell out of each other.
Where Baby Mama dealt with two women in the throes of adulthood, Sisters deals with two women who don’t want to grow up, who are afraid of the passage of time itself. Maura’s terrified of her parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin, both fantastic) dying unexpectedly, so she spends every single night Skypeing with them; Kate quits or loses jobs and gets evicted from apartments so often that her teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) refuses to live with her. It all sounds heavy on paper, but it isn’t, a few moments near the end withstanding. Sisters is, for the most part, laugh-out-loud hilarious and unapologetically dirty, overflowing with dick jokes, running gags about objects shoved into assholes, and some of the most creative cursing I’ve ever heard. (Wiest, in particular, spews forth a fascinating and beautiful new adjective that I’m going to add to my repertoire immediately.)
Early on in the film, there’s a wrench thrown into Maura and Kate’s extended adolescence: Their parents have decided to sell their childhood home and move into an “adult community” full of what Kate refers to as “rowdy seniors.” Forced to fly to Orlando and sulkily rifle through their childhood bedrooms, the sisters realize they both need to let off steam: Maura hasn’t gotten laid since her divorce, Kate’s got nowhere to live, and their parents are busy boning in their new condo. And, of course, the two need to make sure the house sale doesn’t go through. So, just as dudes have been doing throughout the history of cinema, Maura and Kate decide to throw one last massive house party.
Similar to Superbad and every John Hughes movie ever, the build-up to Sisters‘ big party generates some of the best comic fodder and cameos. On a trip to buy booze and fire extinguishers, Kate and Maura bump into childhood foe Brinda, played by the inimitable Maya Rudolph, who milks every last drop of absurdity out of the role. John Leguizamo shows up as Kate’s handsy ex, who, as she puts it to his face, is looking “weathered — like, underpass weathered.” Greta Lee steals every scene she’s in as a deadpan, hard-partying Korean manicurist. Ike Barinholtz is perfect as a James, a neighborhood “sweaty guy” whom Maura and Kate catcall from their car based solely on his aforementioned sweatiness. (He eventually becomes Maura’s love interest, which begs the question: Why isn’t Ike Barinholtz everybody’s on-screen love interest?) This sequence is one of the best showcases for Fey and Poehler’s transcendent comedic rapport: As Maura, sitting in the driver’s seat, awkwardly attempts to hit on James by asking him if the hole he’s digging is for his dead wife, Kate pops her head out of the roof and casually mimes blowjobs.
But the party itself is where Fey and Poehler fully unleash their complementary comedic weapons. Kate, who agrees to be the Sober Party Mom so Maura might finally let loose, finds herself drawn to a hulking drug dealer (John Cena) whose safe word is “keep going,” a plotline that provides Fey with plentiful opportunities to drop 30 Rock-style one-liners. Maura gets wasted and tries to seduce James to disastrous consequences. Poehler can bring down a theater by pulling a single face; the bizarre expressions she makes throughout this sequence are alone worth the price of admission. When they’re not dealing with their own catastrophes, Fey and Poehler join forces every so often, committing fully to both the epic aforementioned dance break and, more impressively, the sort of creative pas de deux that’s carried them through three Golden Globe co-hostings and years of highwire improv.
Sisters isn’t perfect — it feels a little too messy and disjointed at times, and runs about 20 minutes too long. Bobby Moynihan shows up as a dude whose idea of humor is endlessly quoting movies (much like at least 42 percent of actual dudes), and the gag starts to get stale after one too many purple-faced Robert De Niro imitations. Some of the one-liners fall flat, and Davenport, in particular, feels like she’s acting in an entirely different movie, or perhaps a Broadway musical. Girl’s a little too earnest for a movie in which one character chastises another for turning on the O’Jay’s “For the Love of Money” by explaining, “You can’t start with ‘Mon-ay, Mon-ay.’ It’s like starting with anal.’ “
A little bit of earnestness works elsewhere in the film, though, in the same way it did on Poehler’s Parks and Recreation. Despite Sisters’ heightened reality and preponderance of giant dicks drawn on white surfaces, Fey and Poehler treat their characters — and their characters’ relationship — with authenticity and respect, which makes the few emotional beats that come later feel earned and unforced. Near the end of the film, after all manner of hell has broken loose, Kate and Maura are having something of a serious chat, and Poehler, seemingly spontaneously, wraps her arms around Fey, who pulls her friend instinctively into her chest. When Poehler pulls away, her eyes are full of tears, which seems to surprise both her and Fey. Whether rehearsed or not, the moment feels unplanned and almost voyeuristic, like a quick peek behind the curtain at Fey and Poehler’s real-life friendship.
This, ultimately, is what all of Sisters feels like: an opportunity to watch two funny, talented women delight in each other’s company, reveling in all the years they’ve spent building a strong and singular comedic partnership. It sounds cheesy, but I think Fey and Poehler would agree: The most fun party in Sisters isn’t the one that Maura and Kate throw (though, honestly, that one looks fun as hell) — it’s the one Fey and Poehler are having on screen that we’re lucky enough to be invited to for a few hours.