Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have worked hard to become America's fun aunts. Their personas are wise but witty, harried enough to be relatable while together enough to be aspirational. In Fey's Liz Lemon on "30 Rock" and Poehler's Leslie Knope on "Parks and Recreation" they created television characters that seemed to define their cultural moment. And Fey and Poehler's brilliant three-peat hosting of the Golden Globes together and separate authoring of memoir/manuals cemented their public friendship and wide appeal. They seemed like people most anyone would want to spend time with.
If only the new movie "Sisters" better satisfied the impulse to simply hang with Amy and Tina. Rather, as written by Paula Pell and directed by Jason Moore, the idea to apply the structure of a teenage best-night-ever party movie to a tale of middle-aged adults tends to smother its leads under comedic complications and unnecessary asides. The film would like to fashion itself as a tale of rediscovery and rebirth, allowing that at any age one can still start fresh, yet it repeatedly bogs itself down.
This time out Poehler plays Maura Ellis, a caring, slightly controlling and somewhat recently divorced nurse who has often had to pick up the pieces for her chaotic older sister Kate Ellis, played by Fey. They have only one weekend to clean out the last of their things from the Orlando, Florida home they grew up in, as their parents (Dianne Wiest, James Brolin) are closing on a sale.
The lead pair play with the roles established by their turn in 2008's "Baby Mama." Poehler's Maura has it together while Fey's Kate is a troubled mess. Even so, once the sisters decide to throw a blow-out party before leaving the house, the character dynamics flip again as Maura goes uncharacteristically wild for one night while Kate plays the role of the responsible one.
The decisions work in favor of Poehler more than Fey. As Maura, Poehler gives a sense of her effusive, whirligig energy as well as the poignancy she often laced around Leslie Knope. Fey struggles to be believable as a troublemaker, working better in her more comfortable Liz Lemon register of frustrated and misunderstood, as when she blusters "I am not a hothead, I am brassy."
The script is the feature film debut for longtime television writer Pell, which comes through in its episodic, strung-together structure. The movie is stuffed with familiar comedy faces, including Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Greta Lee, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, Jon Glaser and more. The kaleidoscope of personalities diffuses the central story. And as directed by Moore, who made the first "Pitch Perfect," no opportunity is missed to detour the story with a music montage or dance break.
The movie is also further proof of what should now officially be calculated as the Maya Rudolph Ratio, which is how the actress makes any movie she is in approximately 10-15 percent better. Here she plays a long-time rival to Fey's Kate and brings an inspired regal yet fragile quality to the role. There is a small but delightful bit of physical comedy when Fey pulls Rudolph across a room by a finger hooked in a bra strap. Fey elsewhere says of Rudolph's animal-print party outfit, "I respect your jumpsuit but not its contents."
That's a perfect analogy for what doesn't work about "Sisters." There is so much about its package – the stars, the premise, the talented supporting cast – that would make for a film of warmth, humor and insight on the struggles of leaving the past behind and getting out of your own way on the path to fulfilment. Instead, the movie settles for being a party comedy and little else.
Fey and Poehler have put themselves in a position where more is expected from them, and to see them deliver less feels that much more of a let-down. A moderately entertaining, passably amusing comedy, "Sisters" isn't bad enough to inspire anger, just disappointment.
MPAA rating: R for crude sexual content and language throughout, and for drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In general release