There is a moment in “Sisters”, near the end, when an in-full-swing party graduates to completely-out-of-hand as a car crashes into a tree and the tree falls into the house and from somewhere an alarm clock flies through the air and crash lands, shattering, locking the second and minute hands in place. Rachel Dratch’s character sees this clock and in that immaculate Dratch-ness, where hysterical and hysteria merge flawlessly, wails: “We did it! We finally stopped time!” It’s the movie’s single best line, one that Dratch furnishes with a great deal of darkness, cutting to the heart of a movie where adults’ dissatisfaction is threatening so strenuously to eat them alive that they just want to get lost in the spaces between the hours and minutes and seconds. It is in those spaces that “Sisters” conveys considerable promise. That this promise never bears fruit is because director Jason Moore and writer Paula Pell often feel afraid of exploring their movie’s own worst (best) impulses.
The titular “Sisters” are Kate (Tina Fey), crude, lewd, unemployable, though with a teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) in tow, while Maura (Amy Poehler), recently divorced, is sunnier and more sympathetic. Fey, frankly, for all her gifts, is just not made to play slightly sinister woo girls. This part might have done better with, say, Elizabeth Banks. Even when Fey is unhinged she still comes across buttoned-up. There is, in fact, a significant portion of the film where she is “designated mom”, meaning she can’t drink in order to play shepherd to a massive flock of adults acting like kids, and there, with an irritant gleam in her eye, she feels more at home. Maura, on the other hand, always feels like a “designated mom”, even when she winds up smoking pot and cutting loose.
These sisters are not estranged, they are allies, and always have been, just separated as they have gotten older and now re-united. There is a glimmer of an idea there about co-dependency but that goes unmentioned and unexplored. After all, there is a party to throw. Ah yes, the party. “Sisters” turns predominantly on the party When Kate and Maura learn their parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) have sold their childhood Orlando home. That home intrinsically comes to represent everything they were and everything they hoped to be, the last vestige of their childhood, of which they struggle to let go even two decades later, emblemized in their instructions to clean out their old bedrooms by the end of the weekend only to throw a party instead.
The party is something like “Can’t Hardly Wait’s” rager re-staged at Jack Horner’s place. If so many teen movies turn on big blowouts where kegs are tapped and self-realizations are made, the get-together in “Sisters” at least briefly suggests something more anarchic, where parents and couples and single adults turn their backs on wearying existences, so many characters effusing the same desperation by way of despair as Dratch’s character, living it up because they can’t stand the way they live, telling self-realization what to go do with itself. It’s tantalizing, but “Sisters” never pushes it beyond isolated comic moments, retreating for the safe haven of standard-issue proctology jokes, a cipher-ish new beau (Ike Barinholtz) for Maura, a moment of enlightenment for Kate, and a rushed third act of wannabe coming-to-Jesus uplift.
There is a moment near the party’s end when a sinkhole opens beneath an in-ground pool. This functions as Kate’s Call to Action, as she must climb into the sinkhole to save her daughter who has requisitely fallen in, spurring her inevitable third act transformation. I confess, I wish that sinkhole had not been a Call to Action but something else entirely. I wish it had been the moment when “Sisters” spurned its impetus for a mechanical resolution, peered over that precipice into the darkness below and gone right over the edge.