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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

Sisters movie review: women are messed-up people too

by MaryAnn Johanson

Sisters green light

The just-right mix of wistfulness, snark, and painful personal growth makes this nonstop hilarious, with humor that gets women in a way movies rarely do.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Amy Poehler and Tina Fey

I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of grossout comedies

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Hooray. Yay. Yes. This. So much this.

Women behaving badly. Women refusing to grow up. I mean, I would love it if The Movies reverted back to the days of Bringing Up Baby and The Thin Man, with men and women actually believing that 40something is cool, and dressing for dinner and having cocktails at six and solving mysteries and secretly aiding the resistance and such. But if that’s not going to happen, and movies are going to be overpopulated by manchildren playing video games and ogling women and wallowing in haphazard celebrations of adolescent testosterone, then it’s only fair that women get equal time and aren’t expected to be the responsible ones while men have their fun.

So hooray and yay for Sisters. Because now Tina Fey gets to be the womanchild: her teenaged daughter, Haley (Madison Davenport: Noah, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl), is more the grownup than she is, and she throws a for-real kicking-and-screaming tantrum, like a toddler, like an actual brand-new person who has not yet mastered bladder control, which is so absurd that you’re convinced it has to be going extra lengths to be a joke, a sendup of how juvenile men are in films like this. Because now Amy Poehler gets to be self-centered and selfish in a uniquely feminine way; mini spoiler not really: it’s about going overboard in being the “good” girl and the “good” sister and the “good” daughter and how damn self-congratulatory — and also self-negating, which for approved values of womanhood is allegedly a positive thing — that can be. And there’s a particular sort of relief in seeing this notion of “appropriate” womanliness being sent up. Like: yes! Someone sees how ridiculous this is. Someone sees how not-positive for women this is. Someone sees how this is abdicating adulthood, not embracing it. (The someone is screenwriter Paula Pell, a Saturday Night Live veteran. And kudos to director Jason Moore [Pitch Perfect] for getting the tone just right.)

Already Sisters has got it all over any Adam Sandler movie, which never sees how problematic 40something men behaving in stereotypically approved yet idiotically stupid ways really is.

Not that the plot really matters, but Kate (Fey: Muppets Most Wanted, Admission) and Maura Ellis (Poehler: Inside Out, They Came Together) are the titular sibs who’ve just discovered that their parents (Diane Wiest [The Odd Life of Timothy Green, The Big Year] and James Brolin [Burlesque, The Hunting Party]) have sold their childhood home in Orlando, and they’re angry with Mom and Dad for not even consulting them on this. As if it has anything to do with them! “Spoiled brats,” I thought, not kindly, and was afraid that the movie would agree with their entitlement.

Hooray and yay, it does not. They get some pushback for their entitlement, which is more than Adam Sandler ever gets, but this is a good thing, and part of what makes Sisters worth your time: the women aren’t unpunished, at least in a metaphysical sense, for being stuck in adolescence. They grow and learn from it, as they deserve to, but they still get to have their fun! For they decide that this is the one-last-chance for Maura, ever the Responsible One, to have the blowout party she never had in high school. So when the women are supposed to be clearing out their shared childhood bedroom (Mom and Dad have already moved into their new hip retirement community), they are in fact throwing a huge party, to which they have invited most of their former high-school friends and a new few new neighbors, and definitely do not invite their former high-school enemy (Maya Rudolph: Strange Magic, Big Hero 6), who of course shows up anyway.

And thus Sisters ends up a mix of sweet nostalgia — Maura kissing the Family Ties-era poster of Michael J. Fox in their stuck-in-the-80s bedroom is genuinely lovely — and just a little bit of grossout that the movie could have done without and been much stronger for it, but it’s not too much so it’s okay. The just-right mix of wistfulness, snark, and painful getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone makes Sisters nonstop hilarious. As wonderful payback for women moviegoers who have been putting up with overgrown boys onscreen for too long, there is some peculiarly womanish humor, which dudes should heed if they want to understand women (and why wouldn’t they want to?). When Maura worries about not wearing the right bra to get her flirt on, that is a real thing that is very wisely comical about the things that women worry about. (Flirting! Anxieties about flirting and attraction from a woman’s perspective are a concern here, and it is so refreshing to behold. This shit ain’t easy for women either, guys.) There are men as eye candy and objects of desire: pro wrestler John Cena, as a drug dealer Kate likes, follows on from his appearance in Trainwreck with another instance of sending up his almost cartoonishly overly pumped-up masculine image, and — as all wise dudes and women know — men who are comfortable making fun of themselves are extra sexy. And then there is James the charming and funny Florida neighbor, who Maura likes and is played by Ike Barinholtz (Neighbors), who looks like a lost Wahlberg cousin but is apparently not a relation at all. Maura shares a moment of vulnerability with him at the party that is so raw that it made me sob with its shrewdness. I get very worked up when women get to be screwed-up people onscreen. It’s so rare!

This must be what it feels like to be a guy going to the movies these days, and enjoy the wonderful validation that comes from seeing people who look like you having fun even while being walking personal disasters. Seeing people who look like you being considered attractive by attractive members of the opposite sex and no one thinking this is weird or implausible. Of course, it’s ridiculous to think that Fey and Poehler, who are beautiful women even by narrow conventional standards, would be considered unappealing, but that’s how lopsided Hollywood is now, that it feels like something revolutionary for two 40something women to appear onscreen looking their age and not looking like they spend eight hours a day in a gym, and also being so free of vanity that they are willing to show off their imperfect human bodies not for ridicule but for comedic exasperation with getting older. But this is revolutionary.

I like how Sisters makes me feel: Like somebody gets me. Like I am not invisible. Like people like me are worth telling stories about. I want to feel this way at the movies more often.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Sisters for its representation of girls and women.

green light 4 stars

Sisters (2015)
US/Canada release date: Dec 18 2015 | UK release date: Dec 12 2015

MPAA: rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, and for drug use
BBFC: rated 15 (very strong language, strong sex references, drug use)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Patrick

    Have you seen “Young Adult” with Charlize Theron? It tackles the same theme (alibeit in a more meloncholy way).

  • Yes, I’ve seen it.

  • Aaron Jones

    I’ve seen it twice already and am really happy you liked it. I was wondering what you’d think while I was watching. Had to see it twice, the first time the audience drowned out dialogue with their laughter.

  • LaSargenta

    I’m wondering if the AbFab movie (supposedly coming up?) will give you a similar feeling…

  • Imskeptical

    Jeez, I love this review. I was going to see the movie anyway, but now I can’t wait!

  • I like AbFab, but it’s very different from this. Much more absurdist.

  • amanohyo

    The little throwaway jokes sprinkled in were funnier than most of the big comedic setpieces, but this actually made me laugh out loud several times which hasn’t happened in a long time. Not a derisive snort or snicker, but audible hearty laughter which is pretty rare for a snooty contrarian. It’s very efficient in its use of Chekhov’s guns and wrings a lot of value out of a fairly limited set too.

    Most importantly for me, this is how you include asian characters in your movies filmmakers! You open with a lame tired joke about name pronunciation then reveal how absurd it is by deconstructing it (put your joke down flip it and reverse it). Instead of making asian characters momentary comic relief, you treat them like human beings and show the disconnect between the stereotype and the reality. Greta Lee’s Hae-Won was a breath of fresh air for this half-Korean dude. It took thirty years, but maybe the days of Long Duk Dong are finally behind us (and I say this as a huge 16 Candles and Gedde Watanabe fan).

  • this is how you include asian characters

    Yes. That whole bit is wonderful.

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