Chaos, Plastic Cups, Alcohol and 'Sisters'

Sisters invites you to feel "included", like you're in on the jokes about the jokes.


Director: Jason Moore
Cast: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, Maya Rudolph, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, Madison Davenport, John Leguizamo
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-12-18 (General release)
UK date: 2015-12-15 (General release)

"I hate it when people aren't included." Maura (Amy Poehler) and her sister Kate (Tina Fey) are hosting a party. They've sent out e-invites, bought plastic cups, stocked up on booze. While in the grocery store, they've run into Kate's old high school nemesis, Brinda (Maya Rudolph), who's furious that she's not invited. As she harrumphs and blusters, Kate smirks and shrugs, pleased to feel powerful, and a little mean.

This worries Maura because, in Sisters, she's the nice one. While Kate is prone to party, a single mom and hair stylist who can't keep a job, Maura is utterly dependable and careful, a nurse and general do-gooder. If she's clueless in her efforts, handing out cards printed with clichés and inviting homeless men to her home to take a shower, Maura's generosity does make her something of an easy mark.

So she finds herself looking after her hapless sister, her hapless sister's college-age daughter Haley (Madison Davenport), and her parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) who call her at film's start to reveal that they've sold the family home in Orlando. Moreover, they ask her to inform Kate because, they sigh, "You two take news differently."

You know where this is going. That difference is the start and finish of Sisters. In between, they throw a party. You might file this premise under "Girls can do it, too." Since movies have discovered there's money to be made in granting girls the opportunities so long granted to boys, namely, to behave badly and make dick jokes, the rush has been on. From Bridesmaids to Trainwreck to all things Melissa McCarthy, female versions of boys' plots are everywhere.

Such ubiquity makes these movies less new than they might have once seemed. Sisters reuses the plot where a party provides for all kinds of life lessons, as the sisters can get drunk and dance and fight, break rules, grow up, and finally fit in. As always, this plot begins with resistance, in this case, Maura thinking that maybe it's not such a good idea to have one in the house that's just been sold, since mom and dad have plans for the money they're about to come into. The next step is caving in, as Maura can't resist Kate's "puppy dog eyes", not to mention the possibility that the new and completely marriageable neighbor, James (Ike Barenholtz), might offer Maura a way out of her post-divorce wilderness.

The next step is chaos, helped along by the plastic cups and alcohol. Lucky for Kate and Maura, a large percentage of their high school classmates still live in Orlando and have nothing to do. They're also played by SNL veterans, including Rachel Dratch and Bobby Moynihan, who do pretty much exactly what you've seen them do before. Rounded out by John Leguizamo as the townie who went nowhere, Samantha Bee as sloppy drunk, and John Cena as the local drug dealer, this crew bounces around when the music throbs and yells out the name of anyone who begins to dance or do shots.

Their predictable service as noisy backdrop allows for the sisters -- who refer to themselves as "two dusty old twats" -- to clomp through the steps of their redemptive self-discoveries, whether it's Kate nurturing Haley or Maura seducing James. En route to these ends, the sisters must, of course, also make each other crazy, wreck the house, crash the rental car, fall down and mud wrestle.

Given that the movie comes with this sort of roadmap, you might wonder whether it's at all surprising. You might make the case that replacing boys with girls is its own end. From high school to college to perpetual arrested development, boys are expected to be simple and confused, adorably inept and unavoidably vulgar. The logic goes that since girls usually play the objects -- the moms or the sex objects, those who embody civilization or those who present exactly its opposite -- seeing them as subjects is an innovation. This even when the subjectivity they perform in these formula films is the same subjectivity, boys' subjectivity. There may be an equality in that logic, but it's not innovation.

That said, Sisters frames its stale material so that you know it knows it's stale. In this way, the movie invites you to feel "included", like you're in on the jokes about the jokes. Like so many of their boy predecessors, Kate and Maura are surrounded by and sometimes are stereotypes. On meeting a Korean pedicurist, Hae-Won (Greta Lee), Maura's clumsy American inability to follow instructions on how to pronounce her name offsets the film's use of Hae-Won and her girlfriends as sexed-up party girls. And Haley's well-worn frustration with her mom's immaturity sets up a denouement that comes out of nowhere, just as a corny denouement should.

Perhaps most cleverly (or cloyingly, depending on how you come at it), the movie conjures an elaborate pop past for Maura and Kate in the form of the bedroom their parents have left untouched. As the sisters read to each other from their diaries -- revealing Kate's many sexual encounters and Maura's many nights alone -- the camera frames each so you can see reminders that range over decades, from Michael J. Fox, I [Heart] Boy George, and Xanadu posters to ThighMasters and lava lamps still in working order. If it's a joke that these items might inspire anyone to feel nostalgic, it's also a joke that you recognize all these cues, whether or not you've ever listened to "Magic".

In being so meta, in making fun of all the other cues in all the other movies, Sisters invites you to feel "included", no matter your point of entry. But feeling part of what's familiar isn't by definition funny. It might be meta- or post- joking. It might also be just old.


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