Jason Moore’s Sisters is a film about recapturing a carefree youth that’s lost in the responsibility of old age; it’s also about the material possessions that invoke nostalgia over this lost youth, be it diary entries, toys, or in the case of Sisters, a childhood home. Coupled with adults in the film who behave like children and a child who behaves like an adult, thematically, Paula Pell, who serves as the film’a screenwriter, seems to be channeling the spirit of Wes Anderson into Sisters. Specifically, The Royal Tenenbaums, a film more than about a father attempting to reconcile with his family but also about the displaced adults of that family attempting to truly grow up beyond their own self-imposed childhood restraints.
It is then through Sisters own coming-of-age narrative anachronistically set against its older characters that the film sets up its jokes and while the jokes are funny, Sisters as a whole is fairly standard. Rather than use the camera as a tool to accentuate the comedy, Moore relegates the camera to its objective definition of simply being a recording device and so Sisters is never able to take that step to be truly great.
Maura Ellis (Amy Poehler) is a divorced nurse who spends her time Skyping with her parents, creating inspirational cards, and helping the homeless, although the opening scene turns the latter hobby into a great joke that eases audiences into the film. Being the responsible one, Maura’s parents straddle her with the task of telling her sister Kate (Tina Fey), a single mother and hairstylist who is currently living out of a “friend’s” house, that the two are planning on moving and selling the home which the family grew up in.
Maura calls Kate with the lie that their parents only require them to clean their room, and the two soon fly out to Orlando. Maura’s lie doesn’t subsist for long, and the only way Kate is willing to be assuaged is if the two throw one last “Ellis Island” goodbye to their home. There is, however, a twist. Kate, the party girl of the two, agrees to be the “mom” of the night so that Maura can finally live a night where she gives in to her inhibitions.
The beginning moments from when the party truly begins gives way to a narrative of decadence that’s all too familiar; there’s alcohol, drugs, foam, and a strobe of lights all fueled by a DJ playing contemporary pop music surely off the Billboard charts. It all comes together when shots of the party-goers dancing in slow-motion are introduced. The message here is clear: let go completely and have fun but what Sisters lacks is the why.
Sure, the party goers are leading seemingly boring lives but what is it about the drugs, alcohol and lights that entice us so? This goes even more so for Kate, who we learn embraced this lifestyle. Fey and Poehler are currently seen as two of the biggest leaders in comedy not just for women but in general–both were the respective leads on critically acclaimed sitcoms that were not only funny but also explored their characters. It’s going to take more than simply pairing Fey and Poehler to make a film and aside from a few cliché remarks, Sisters doesn’t take the time to explore its biggest components that are its protagonists.
One of the subjects that Fey has criticized in her comedy is the lack of diversity in roles available for older women and Sisters seeks to remedy that by its inclusion of two older women, who, while a bit underdeveloped, are real characters. The men of Sisters who the audience is most curious about are down-played. Maura’s ex-husband is never mentioned by name nor does he make an appearance. The same goes for the father of Kate’s child whose absence is never commented on at all.
The absence of both these men place a bigger emphasis on the Ellis sisters. This is their story and the narrative is interested in exploring the Ellis sisters’ future rather than give time to the past. It’s a technique that’s subtle but has both strengths and weaknesses, because it leaves questions hanging concerning the lives of the protagonists whose current actions are driven by their past choices and the consequences that followed; it also allows the women to completely move forward in not only their characterization but also their lives.
Through its narrative centered on two older women, Sisters isn’t being radical so much as its doing something that the film and its creators believe should be standard. It goes without question that Poehler and Fey have great chemistry together, but the two are trapped in a film that does little to go beyond the dramedy standard.