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Sisters is full of genius and surprises

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Sisters serves as an object lesson on making smart comedies from material that would be ritually abused by less gifted or driven filmmakers. Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore’s skill for executing rapid-fire gags and Paula Pell’s all-in script give stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler their first big-screen comedy worthy of their talents.

Look at the raw bones of the story and Sisters looks like an amalgam of Step Brothers and Risky Business at best, or a soul-killing Adam Sandler abomination at worst. In its execution, this comedy fights well above its class.

Maura (Poehler) is a recent divorcée with a stable career but a weak self-image and wobbly social skills, while her older sister Kate (Fey) is an outgoing, out-of-work beautician barely cutting it as a single mother to her college-age daughter. When Kate gets evicted, she plans to move herself and daughter Haley (Madison Davenport) in with her parents in Orlando, only to learn that Mom and Dad (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) are selling the house, smelting Kate and Maura’s childhood memories into cushy retirement cash.

First things first, Kate and Maura have to clear out all the teenage detritus from their bedroom before the sale can go through, and the last thing either wants to do is find storage space for their New Kids on the Block gear. They’d rather invite all their over-the-hill high school classmates to one last blowout while their parents are away, reliving their early 1990s glory days and abandoning their depressing adult lives for one night of toxic indulgence and aggressive immaturity.

Given the expected results of placing immaculately wasted, middle-aged party monsters next to picture windows and drywall, Sisters is in heavily trodden territory. What sets it apart from lesser slob-coms is its total commitment. Pell’s script teems with killer lines seemingly tailored to Fey and Poehler’s uncanny, sisterly rapport, and Maura’s awkward romance with her parents’ neighbor (Ike Barinholtz, The Mindy Project) feels sweet and genuine while also supplying the film’s most pointedly painful and sustained laughs.

Poehler and Fey’s chemistry first became obvious when they co-anchored Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, but as 2008’s Baby Mama proved with its safe-as-milk PG-13 antics, it’s not easy to bottle that lightning on screen. By setting Fey and Poehler free to go for anything and everything that can generate a laugh, Sisters gets it right, true, raw and filthy. Nothing is left on the table, but every gag also feels earned.

Producer Fey assembled a top-shelf supporting cast led by fellow Saturday Night Live alums Rachel Dratch, Bobby Moynihan and Maya Rudolph, who plays Maura and Kate’s high school nemesis with gleeful menace. In addition to Weist, Brolin, John Leguizamo and Samantha Bee delivering memorable outbursts, John Cena continues to build his comedy cred as a stoic, face-tatted drug dealer with a remarkably complete selection of party supplies.

Formula is only problematic when nothing is done to elevate it, and Sisters proves that inspiration can overcome a by-the-numbers setup. The next time Sandler decides to bankroll a vacation by taking studio money for Grown Ups 3, he should be contractually obligated to watch Sisters and take copious notes.

https://youtu.be/vRnhEjP3R-c

Print headline: Sisters act, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler finally get the big-screen comedy they deserve.

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