Just as no outsider can ever understand the truth of another couple’s marriage, the essence of a good comedy partnership is almost impossible to parse. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were one of the most inspired professional comedy pairings ever, the former a brilliant cutup who never did better work than when he was goaded on by his genius straight man. When their professional union imploded, in the mid-1950s, it was as sad and as final as the brutal dissolution of a marriage, both for them and for their audience. George Burns and Gracie Allen, who actually were married, freely invited outsiders into a show-biz version of their dynamic—she was loopy, he was sensible, and the audience took pleasure in the delightful incongruity. Comic duos need to find ways to let the outside world in; otherwise, their chemistry can fossilize into an inside joke.
Former Saturday Night Live colleagues Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are clearly simpatico comedy partners, seemingly closer, in some ways, than sisters. So why shouldn’t they play siblings, as they do in Sisters, directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), with a script by Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell? Fey and Poehler play Kate and Maura Ellis, sisters whose differences define them more starkly than their similarities do. Kate is quick-tempered, high strung, a little wild, the type of woman who squeezes herself into clothes that are a little too small and a little too young, as if she fears she’s leaving her best years behind. Maura is generous, awkward, and sensitive to a fault, the sort of person who adopts one-eyed dogs and coos patronizingly to homeless people (even when they just turn out to be construction workers on break).
Kate and Maura aren’t the grown-ups they ought to be. Kate has lost track of her twentyish daughter, Hayley (Madison Davenport), who’s far more sensible than she is. And both she and Maura are distressed when they learn that their parents (played by Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) have decided to sell the family homestead: They’d hoped to hang onto every shred of their childhood forever. And so they descend upon the house, which has already attracted potential buyers, and hatch a plan to round up all their old neighborhood friends and host the mother of all parties, an event that will render the property undesirable.
There’s nothing wrong with that idea, and Sisters occasionally delivers on its promise of outright silliness: When Kate and Maura find themselves shopping for special party outfits, the event devolves into a contest to see who can find the tackiest, sleaziest dress. (At one point Kate is informed by a blasé salesperson that she’s wearing a tiny party dress backwards, which explains why her flesh is hanging out in all the wrong places.) The contrast between the two emerges starkly when they negotiate who’s going to be the “party mom”—that is, the one who forgoes drinking to keep the night from getting too crazy. Kate, the heavier partier, draws the short straw, because Maura is hoping to seduce a neighbor hottie (Ike Barinholtz). No one is better at playing exasperated martyrdom than Fey. She rolls her eyes the way Fred Astaire dances—it comes so naturally to her that it’s a thing of joy. And Poehler, with those startled-lemur eyes, is just devilish enough to keep her from being unbearably adorable. She’s a little Carole Lombard, a little Carol Burnett.
Fey and Poehler have no vanity, which is just one of the reasons to love them. They’re unafraid to look un-pretty or awkward or even slightly dumpy, if it will get a laugh. And yet they can’t quite keep Sisters afloat. The party sequence, which takes up a considerable chunk of the picture, devolves into madness, and gives some of the picture’s second bananas a chance to shine: Maya Rudolph shows up as the snooty killjoy who tries to sabotage the proceedings by calling the cops—it’s fun to watch her sashaying about in her leopard-print cloud of superiority. Greta Lee is wonderful as Hae-Won, a Korean manicurist and party girl—she’s particularly sharp in a scene where she schools Maura in the correct pronunciation of her name, easily puncturing the well-meaning white woman’s unwitting condescension. And everyone’s favorite wrestling-star-turned-actor, John Cena, shows up as a beefy cutie-pie drug dealer, his ridiculously sculpted body laced with crazy tattoos—he even gets a dance sequence with Fey, which is great fun to watch if all too brief.
But the chemistry between Fey and Poehler, as their characters alternately pick at each other and kiss and make up, is almost too strong: The actresses’ bond is so airtight, their ability to read one another so telepathic, that sometimes they come close to shutting the audience outside of the gag. Every now and then, it looks as if they’re ready to burst into laughter at their own jokes, the surest way to kill a laugh. In the 2008 comedy Baby Mama, in which Poehler played a working-class woman hired to carry a spudling for overachieving single businesswoman Fey, the rapport between the two was breezy and fluid, but there was always an essential prickliness there, too—the duo hadn’t yet settled into a comfortable groove. In Sisters, their mind meld is a kind of Superglue, and somehow, there isn’t enough light and air coming through the cracks. Perhaps, by this point, they know each other so well that they’re closer than sisters. You can’t blame them for that—but to be cordoned outside their mini-clique is no fun at all.