Film Review: Sisters

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Oh, Fey 

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s new comedy may not be funny but at least they had the decency to include a character that people like me can employ as shorthand for everything that’s wrong with it. The girls stage a house party, a last hurrah in their childhood home on the eve of sale. Amongst the old faces to show up uninvited is Dwayne, a boorish try-hard, self-ennobled joke machine – “always on”, according to a weary Fey, who doesn’t know the difference between trying to be funny – silly voices, pop culture riffs, affected madcap zaniness, and wit. “It’s exhausting” lament the stars, and right they are, but this is their movie: a comedy built on oddball turns of phrase and lashings of shtick.

From the sketch-like opener, with Poehler mistaking a resting workman for a bum, to an agonising scene built on the mispronunciation of a Korean nail technician’s name, a testament to improvisation’s diminishing returns, Sisters lays it on thick – killing each and every comic setup by overplaying. It’s no good setting up a few melodramatic beats in the first Act, abandoning them for over an hour of frat house humour, then returning to them at the end, in the hope that audiences will be fooled into thinking they’ve witnessed an emotional arc for the characters. Real world feeling has no part in a movie like this – it’s just for show.

Sisters represents everything that’s currently wrong with American movie comedy. Much like Paul Feig’s recent efforts, notably Spy (with all the foreboding that generates for the forthcoming Ghostbusters reboot), Jason Moore’s movie exists in a heightened comic universe in which everything is subordinate to conspicuous gag making. Given the right context, a genre spoof like Austin Powers for example, the approach can pay dividends; we enter a world that’s flagged as ridiculous and in which there are no rules.

You go to these movies not to be moved or intrigued by human relationships, just to be overpowered by unadulterated silliness. But in a so-called real world setting, in a movie that’s allegedly about something – in this case being infantilised, embracing adulthood, paternal responsibility, etc – a grounded tone, with the comedy generated from pathos and wit and character, maketh the film. Think back to the ‘80s for example, and every comedy you ever truly loved – perhaps the likes of Steve Martin’s Roxanne or even the original Ghostbusters, and you can see funny characters bestriding an approximation of the real world, surrounded, both for technique and contrast, by straight men and women, who power the jokes. Sisters is 100% pure lewd shtick and like Dwayne, the in-movie proxy, it’s exhausting.

For the purposes of illustration compare two performances from Dianne Wiest, here cast in a thankless role as the siblings’ put-upon mother. A quarter of a century ago, in Ron Howard’s Parenthood, she played another mother, coincidentally struggling with a couple of wayward kids. Parenthood’s a funny movie but it’s also a grounded movie. Wiest’s Helen Buckman had great comic moments, accidently picking up her daughter’s sex pics from the pharmacy instead of her holiday snaps for example. She had the feel of a real person; an archetype to whom we could relate. In Sisters her job is to be “funny” – gurn a bit, swear a bit, facilitate a joke about grey fucking. But there’s no dimensionality to her character, or indeed anyone else’s. She’s just there to set up punchlines (or deliver them).

Sisters is built on this philosophy. It’s populated with archetypal turns designed to be got in fast; disposable people in a disposable movie. The unfunny one’s unfunny, the stuck-up girl from college is a stuck-up adult, the Asian one’s kooky and quiet, and so on.

So Sisters invites you to bite down on two long hours of sketch comedy, hung on a story. There’s no wit in it and no human beings. But fans of bawdy jokes featuring pubic hair, rectums, tits and the like, will find much to enjoy, though they really shouldn’t.

Directed by: Jason Moore

Country: US

Year: 2015

Running Time: 118 mins

Certificate: 15 for mock-sentimentality, noise and wasting the considerable talents of Dianne Wiest. 

11 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    You make some good points… But holy hot damn is this review pretentious.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Well don’t come crying to me when you’re given Sisters on Blu-ray and when asked why you can’t stop crying you’re at a loss to explain.

      • Tim Earnshaw says:

        Careful, Ed. Anon contributes an enormous amount to internet forums and blog comments and deserves your respect.

        • Ed Whitfield says:

          Yes, I see Anon everywhere – I don’t know how she or he finds the time. But I’m always impressed by the depth of analysis and the engagement with the arguments. On further reflection, I often realise I got it wrong and feel a little stupid for trying to get it right in the first place.

  2. Rich Tenley says:

    Pretentious is right. These two talented comedians made the movie they wanted to make and certainly don’t need the approval of a sour movie snob.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      I wasn’t sour when I went in. You don’t mean to but you’ve hit the nail on the head. They made a self-indulgent movie not a funny one. Great fun to make, tiring to watch. With luck they’ll watch it back one day and realise it was supposed to be the other way round.

    • Tim Earnshaw says:

      Pretentious is wrong, Rich. Do yourself a big fat pretentious favor and look the pretentious word up in a pretentious online dictionary.

  3. Leslie says:

    I am in my mid-fifties and long for a truly good comedy. It seems everything put out these days follow the same formula and frankly are just boring. Can you recommend any good comedies made recently?

    Thank you,

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Hi Leslie,

      It’s tricky, and a matter of personal taste of course, but for me the best couple of comedies of the year were Man Up (a nice surprise, well-observed) and Aaaaaaah! – a highly original movie set in a parallel world in which humans still have the language skills and social habits of primates. Lots of stripped down social comment. I’d also take a look at Inherent Vice – not an out and out comedy, but there’s plenty of enjoyable comic moments. Other than that it’s been a bit of a dry spell for intentional laughs of late. Unintentional? How long have you got?

  4. Richard Feldman says:

    “Sisters represents everything that’s currently wrong with American movie comedy.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve commented to several others that trash like Porkys would be a five star movie these days. Sisters is crude and humorless.

  5. Chimalpahin says:

    This is even funnier when you consider that Pohler and Fay set this movie up in comparison to the new Star Wars movie. They even had a mock SW TFA trailer made for Sisters. Heck Amy Pohler got frustrated trying to sell this movie since they had to compete and said she hated Star Wars… holding some sw character that didn’t even show up in the movie.

    It’s a shame to hear it’s not even worth a chuckle. I quite liked Pohler and Fay but… it sounds like this movie ain’t worth it.