Role Reversal

Sisters puts the perfect Fey/Poehler pair in an imperfect setup

Role Reversal

If modern film history introduced the notion of the "high-concept" movie — one where you can sell it to an audience based on a one-sentence plot summary — we might also need a name for a concept that's actually higher than high-concept. That's when a movie is effectively defined by its title and the casting of the lead actors — like "Chris Rock is Head of State," or "Dwayne Johnson is the Tooth Fairy." It's marketing distilled to its purest form, understanding that moviegoers want to see the performers they like.

Sisters on some level feels like a continuation of that tradition, since "Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are Sisters" has been enough to make fans of the ex-Saturday Night Live cast mates giddy at the prospect of seeing them work together, and work through a dramatized sibling rivalry.

It should be to the credit of everyone involved that Sisters screenwriter Paula Pell flips the script by making Fey the together-if-high-strung sibling and Poehler the inveterate screw-up. Poehler plays Maura Ellis, recently divorced but still the one who checks in regularly with her parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) and tries to take care of everyone; Fey is Kate Ellis, a single mom who can't hold down a job. When their parents announce that they're selling the Orlando, Florida, house where the sisters grew up, they head home to clear out their old things. But instead of saying goodbye to their past, they opt to relive it in the form of a huge party with their old high school friends, only with a personality twist: Maura will get to be the wild thing, and Kate will have to stay sober and responsible.

It's a terrific premise, rich with the possibilities of exploring how people mythologize the joys, conflicts and disappointments of adolescence, and sometimes find it hard to break free from them. Sisters occasionally pokes its nose into that territory, partly through supporting characters like a classmate (Maya Rudolph) who can't shake her high-school rivalry with Kate, and another (Bobby Moynihan) who still tries way too hard to be the comedian.

But Pell was also a longtime writer for Saturday Night Live, and Sisters often feels like a series of sketches rather than a cohesive movie.

There's also that little matter of the characters Poehler and Fey are playing, which seems like a clever notion on the surface. The problem is that Poehler is a far more versatile actor than Fey, able to be thoroughly convincing both as the control freak and the just-plain-freak. While the chemistry between Poehler and Fey is too delicious not to provide some fun moments, they're not interchangeable parts in their comedic partnership. When the concept is high, sometimes the expectations are, too.♦

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