“Sisters” is a movie to go out and see when you’ve run out of television to watch. Which could happen, at least theoretically. Directed by Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”) from a script by the longtime “Saturday Night Live” writer Paula Pell, this raunchy-huggy comedy features, in keeping with Hollywood custom, a gaggle of well-known and well-liked sitcom and sketch-comedy performers being a little less funny than you want them to be. They are allowed to swear more robustly than on network or basic-cable shows, to deliver sentimental speeches along with punch lines and to play with or against type as the mood suits.
Tina Fey, as Kate Ellis, falls — or rather leaps — into the “against” category. We’re used to seeing Ms. Fey (especially but not only on “30 Rock”) as an anxious overthinker using her caustic sarcasm as a weapon against both her own insecurities and the flakes and train wrecks who surround her. This time, she gets to be the train wreck. Kate is sometimes scolded for her irresponsibility by her teenage daughter, Haley (Madison Davenport), but her real foil is her younger sister, Maura, played in full goody-two-shoes splendor by Amy Poehler. Way back in 2008, in “Baby Mama,” Ms. Poehler was the wayward yin to Ms. Fey’s uptight yang. This time, the polarities are reversed, but the performers are too restless, and too much in sync, to settle into a simple pattern.
When they were growing up — as attested to in passages from diaries they find in their old bedroom — Kate was hedonistic and adventurous, while Maura was prudent and prudish. In their 40s, they find themselves stuck in these roles. Kate is a hothead who can’t hold down a job. Maura, a nurse, is divorced and lonely.
To add to their woes, Kate and Maura’s parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have decided to sell the family home in Orlando, Fla., and move into a condominium complex where they have less space and more sex. Their easygoing retirement bliss is a rebuke to their daughters’ midlife misery. Kate and Maura don’t seem to know how to be happy, except when they are together in the childhood home they are about to lose.
First, though, in order for “Sisters” to become a comedy rather than the somber little indie melodrama it may secretly want to be, Kate and Maura have to hold one last big bash. Defying their parents and the snooty New York transplants who are buying the house, the sisters take to Facebook and summon their old high school crowd, and random other people, to the suburban split-level they call Ellis Island.
The party movie is a venerable genre. So is the movie-as-party, which is a slightly different creature. “Sisters” is a hybrid of the two, and also, therefore, a fairly standard specimen of modern post-“Hangover” commercial film comedy. It falls into the same category as “Neighbors” or“The Night Before,” which is to say it’s uneven, generally enjoyable, self-consciously naughty and also, despite drug use and jokes about anal sex, more concerned with reassurance than transgression.
Since Maura has a crush on a hunky neighbor (Ike Barinholtz, playing a handsome dullard rather than the goofball you might know from “The Mindy Project”), she is allowed to cut loose and go crazy. Kate reluctantly agrees to be the sober “party mom.” At first the guests glumly act their age, but then the tequila starts to flow, the music becomes loud, the joints are lit and the requisite funny stuff starts to happen. The respectable wife and mother (Samantha Bee) takes her top off. The jokey fat guy (Bobby Moynihan) loses his pants. The sad, weird woman (Rachel Dratch) gets drunker and weirder and sadder. The mean girl (Maya Rudolph) tries to crash the party, and then to sabotage it. The audience learns which groups Hollywood is still willing to treat as comic stereotypes, with the usual escape clause that the stereotypes themselves are being held up for mockery. It turns out to be Asian women and lesbians.
But nobody really gets hurt (except for maybe Mr. Barinholtz’s character, who has an uncomfortable encounter with a ballerina music box), and nobody stays mad. Unlike small-screen sitcom characters, who can change slowly over seasons or not at all, the protagonists of movie comedies must grow, learn, change and forgive. This is almost always a drag, even when it’s kind of touching, as it is here.
“Sisters” is best when it allows itself a hint of cruelty. Ms. Fey wrote the screenplay for “Mean Girls,” after all, and the affection and inspiration that flows so easily between her and Ms. Poehler carries a bracing undercurrent of hostility toward everybody else. But “Sisters” is both too careful and too sloppy to take full advantage of the thornier implications of its premise. It’s too awkward — because scenes drag when they should swing and jokes sag when they should pop — and not awkward enough.
“Sisters” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Trash talk. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.