Sneaking onto Seattle Screens at the end of the year in an act of counter-programming to both the aggro fantasies of Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro González Iñárritu, as well as tasteful award hopefuls good, bad and miscellaneous Carol, The Danish Girl and Joy (I’ll leave you to sort out which is which), and, of course the cultural Singularity of The Force Awakens, is this modest and hilarious union of former NBC talents big and small with the director of Pitch Perfect, one of 2010s Hollywood’s most delightfully shaggy entertainments. As that film reflected as much the voice of its writer Kay Cannon and producer Elizabeth Banks (who directed the sequel, which Cannon also wrote), Sisters is driven as much by its writer, Paula Pell, and the personae of its two stars, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. All of these people, save Moore, worked with Fey on Saturday Night Live or 30 Rock or both, and the new film is as much an excuse for old co-workers to get together and act weird as it is a narrative feature film. On the tenuous thread of a story structure borrowed from 20 years of teen films (16 Candles through Can’t Hardly Wait and American Pie at least), Pell asks what happens when a pair of women in their mid-40s return to their childhood home and attempt to recreate one of the raging parties of their high school youth. Hilarity ensues, but also an uneasy desperation, the quiet sigh that comes with the recognition of our own inevitable disintegration.
Reversing their roles from 2008’s Baby Mama, Fey plays the wild older sister, an itinerantly employed beautician with a teenaged daughter. Poehler plays a nurse, blindly selfless and charitable with a fondness for arts and crafts. When their parents put their home up for sale, the two women decide to throw one last party, with Poehler allowed a chance to loosen up post-divorce and Fey a chance to show some responsibility by being the sober “party mom”. The cast of familiar faces arrives (Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Samantha Bee, Bobby Moynihan, John Leguizamo, John Lutz, Jon Glaser, Ike Barinholtz, Kate McKinnon, John Cena (whose stone-faced flirtations with Fey would justify a short feature all of their own, or at least a web series)) and chaos ensues, a solid hour of hijinks. This sequence, coupled with Fey and Poehler’s party preparations (the now familiar rapid montage of apparently improvised jokes and situations, highlighted by Emily Tarver’s horrified deadpans as the two stars try on the trashiest in Orlando fashions), amount to what is probably the most purely funny sections of any Hollywood comedy this year. Unlike Trainwreck, the summer’s Amy Schumer feature which presents a slightly younger variation on the theme, Sisters is never dragged down by Apatovian presumptions of profundity. There are no dying comedians or tragic estrangements, the time-constricted plot devoted to piling increasingly destructive partying upon the poor house, sublimating story to the joke. What hugging and learning there is feels trite and tacked on, but thankfully there’s little of it.
The arrested adolescence at the heart of the film, or rather, the yearning to have adolescence arrested, is ubiquitous in American culture, as it has been for every generation since the one that grew up in the midst of Depression and World War. Fey and Poehler (six and five years older than I am, respectively) and Pell tap into the deep uneasiness we have as a generation at not feeling grown up enough (whereas our parents’ generation marked themselves as unique by simply refusing to act as grown up as their parents). The drive to recapture youth is a fear of responsibility and a fear of death, and all the best comedy is driven by fear. Sisters inverts the trope of the teen party film, which is about condensing the terrifying transition from childhood to adulthood into a single night, by using the one night to transition its adults into children , leading not to enlightenment (Wiley Wiggins floating into his headphones at the end of Dazed and Confused) but into a literal sinkhole of despair. Their climb out of it, triumphantly silly, and cover it up with dirt, but we know the hole is still there, waiting to swallow us up.
Fey and Poehler, and Schumer as well, at least in her TV series, are at their best when freed from the logic of traditional narrative. Their willingness to use their bodies as engines of comedy recalls, if not Jerry Lewis, then at least Elaine May circa A New Leaf. Sisters is their least-constricted work to date (setting aside some of the better episodes of 30 Rock). I don’t know if they have the desire to make something as formless or anarchic as The Bellboy, but I’d love to see it. If nothing else, someday they may give us an Ishtar-level masterpiece.