Fey is innately smart and likable, but she mistrusts acting and looks at it with suspicion. Meanwhile, Poehler is the wilder of the two, and she can seemingly play or believe anything on screen. Both of them are lethally smart when it comes to comedy and they cast their net wide for laughs.
In “Sisters,” a heartfelt comedy scripted by longtime “Saturday Night Live” writer Paula Pell and directed by Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”), the chemistry between Fey and Poehler is put to the test in many creative and hilarious ways. Fey plays against type as irresponsible manicurist Kate Ellis, a woman who can’t keep a job because of her temper. “I’m not a hothead, I am brassy!” Kate tells her fed-up daughter Hayley (Madison Davenport), and this kind of editorializing on her own behavior suits Fey’s style, which puts everything in quotation marks.
Poehler plays Kate’s sister Maura, a nurse who has spent her life worrying about others and trying to be charitable. Maura would seem the obvious part for the conscientious Fey to play, but Poehler uses this role as a solid structure for some of the sharpest comedy she’s ever performed on screen, especially in the scene when Maura tries correctly pronouncing the name of nail salon employee Hae Won (Greta Lee), saying it over and over again until it’s obvious that Hae Won is teasing her.
“Sisters” gets off to a rough start with wobbly scenes that establish both of the lead characters, but everything falls into place once the sisters find out that their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) are going to sell their family home in Orlando, prompting the Ellis girls to have one more blow-out party.
At first, it might seem implausible that these two women in their early 40s still have childhood bedrooms decorated exactly like they were 30 years ago — complete with a poster of “Out of Africa” on the door — but gradually this set-up starts to feel both hilarious and somewhat touching, especially when the sisters try on dresses together and Maura notes that they shouldn’t be shopping at Forever 21 but rather “Suddenly 42.”
Many talented actors show up to strut their stuff in the extended party sequence that takes up most of “Sisters,” and all of them are at or near their best. Particular kudos should go to Bobby Moynihan, as a desperate, exhausting guy who is always trying and failing to be funny, and Maya Rudolph as an unpopular nemesis of the Ellis sisters. Rudolph handles this challenging role well, because she underlines the emotional and psychological reality of every silly thing she does, just like Fey and Poehler do. This is a movie where the women all get a chance to shine, particularly Rachel Dratch (who has her own special chemistry with Fey) and Samantha Bee, both of whom come up with inventive variations on drunkenness.
“Sisters” stands in marked contrast to many of the heavily-improvised bro comedies of the last few years, actually taking time over its comic bits rather than just throwing every rambling, shambling improv routine up on the screen. In the end credits, for instance, we get to see how many takes it took Poehler to nail that Hae Won routine.
Even the stray gross-out moments of “Sisters” register as humane and heartfelt; Fey and Pohler’s comedy comes from a place of warmth and intelligence, and so does the movie.