Theoretically, the combination of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a feature film is a no-brainer. They killed it as a duo on Saturday Night Live for years, were amazing as Golden Globes hosts for three years running, and their respective TV sitcoms, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, are two of the greatest television comedies of modern times.
So, why doesn’t it work on the big screen? Though Mean Girls was amazing, the two only played small, unrelated parts, and 2008’s Baby Mama, in which they were the leads, was lukewarm at best. Their latest film, Sisters, though better, still doesn’t fully capture the hilarity that we all know they’re capable of.
Fey and Poehler play Kate and Maura Ellis, a pair of sisters who return home to find that their parents have sold their childhood house. As a form of rebellion, and as a way of saying farewell to their old lives, they decide to throw one last party, inviting all their old school friends, who are now mired in the depths of middle age. If you’ve had even a glimpse of the trailer, you already have a pretty reasonable idea of the chaos that ensues.
In fairness to the duo, they aren’t the main problem here. Their performances and that of their supporting cast are actually quite good. Poehler’s extremely goody two-shoes character ends up being involved in – and the reason for – some of the film’s funniest scenes, and Fey seems to be having a ball playing against type as the single mum stuck suffering from arrested development, still acting like she is in her teens.
The supporting cast, featuring the likes of Maya Rudolph, Bobby Moynihan and John Leguizamo, also have some excellent moments, especially as the party falls deeper and deeper into turmoil. Moynihan in particular is a slow burn, but when he gets going, proves an absolute gem. The only real hiccup in terms of casting is Ike Barinholtz as Maura’s love interest, James. You can’t help but feel that the film might have benefited from using another SNL alum like it does for much of its cast, and bringing in an Andy Samberg or a Bill Hader as a more adept comedic foil to work with Poehler. As it is, Barinholtz’s character brings little beyond his looks, unfortunately.
That said, Barinholtz, like the rest of the cast, are done no favours by a script that, though it has a few moments of hilarity, seems content to settle for cliché. Many of the gags are standard fare, and when the movie comes close to approaching something resembling an emotional core, it veers wildly away from it, afraid that its audience may mistake the film for something more than it is.
This is no more evident than in the way it treats the storyline of Kate’s attempts to salvage her damaged relationship with her daughter. What should be the part of the film that gives it its heart is relegated in favour of Maura’s attempts to bring fun into her life by getting James into bed. When Kate’s demons come to the fore, they are once again shafted for a couple of one-liners that aren’t nearly as funny as they’d need to be to cover the wasted opportunity.
This review isn’t meant to seem overly harsh on the film, but more a lamentation for what could have been. Dianne Wiest and James Brolin are hilarious as the Ellis’ elderly parents, as is pro wrestler John Cena playing a drug dealer, extending on those comedy chops he proved to have in last year’s Trainwreck.
It’s just that scriptwriter Paula Pell, who’s also a long-time writer for SNL, seems to have turned in something that suffers from the same problem as modern iterations of the legendary comedy program. There is some absolute gold produced by some very talented comedians, but the writing, perhaps for fear of being too edgy or alienating some portion of the audience, ends up being overly broad, and burying the moments of brilliance amongst a sea of mediocrity.
Knowing what Fey and Poehler can do, it can only be a matter of time before they get the live action feature film moments they deserve (and Fey might be about to get it, with the upcoming Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), but for now, all we can do is wonder why the magic of those behind Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope simply hasn’t been able to translate as yet.
Review by James Lamb