Films have certain advantages over stage plays – locations can shift, laws of physics need not apply, and characters can do more than stand around and talk ad nauseam. Unfortunately, no one shared this world of possibilities with the makers of The Sisters, an aggressively frustrating and ultimately nonsensical waste of time and talent.
The titular Prior sisters, hyper-literate and unlikable to a one, are conveniently categorized archetypes capable of little beyond petty bickering. There’s the oldest, Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson
), cold, repressed, and overly rational; the middle, Marcia (Maria Bello
), whose vicious unhappiness has turned her into predatory shrew; and baby Irene (Erika Christensen
), the idealistic peacemaker. The family, along with brother Andrew (Nivola
), a spineless placeholder, and various relatives and hangers-on, assembles regularly for festive occasions as heartwarming as a pack of coyotes fighting over a kill. Article continues below
The melodrama is intimate but overly full of histrionics: Marcia is trapped in an awful marriage to an equally bilious psychologist and tempted into an affair – after approximately an hour of acquaintance – with a former student of her father’s (Tony Goldwyn
); two different professors (one acerbic, the other puppyish) are in love with the oblivious Irene; the entire family hates Andrew’s trashy fiancée, Nancy. Each conflict plays out in vicious familial attacks and endless, self-congratulatory, falsely profound dialogue.
The Sisters is based on the Chekov play Three Sisters, and I will title that Problem #1: It sticks too closely to the devices of the original. In Chekov’s time, an unhappy marriage was permanent, love could be so socially unacceptable it was rendered unmentionable, and repression was a legitimate way of life. In a modern setting, the confines are simply not as limiting as the characters would like to believe. Marcia makes no secret of being violently miserable in her marriage and communicates with her husband solely in hurled vitriol, and yet she stays! For no good reason! This isn’t a tragic character; she’s a woe-is-me-martyr, and impossible to like for it.
Problem #2 is in the adaptation of the piece from a stage play to the screen. I’d guess that, in the process, Richard Alfeiri was reluctant to make any significant alterations to his original or offer many concessions to the medium, because this reads exactly like a play. That isn’t a complement; these characters do nothing but talk. In a stage setting, audiences are willing to put up with florid language, but for film, the dialogue is ridiculous. Characters pack every sentence with as many 50-cent-words possible – why say “live” when “inhabit” has so many more syllables? During one (of many) heated arguments, one sister actually says to another, “You do not understand my complexities enough to analyze and categorize me!” I wish I were making that up, or that it were an anomaly. But no, they are all so pleased with themselves, with their endless babble about the “nature of their truth” that every sentence furthers the desire to slap each and every character. Hard.
Probably the biggest problem with The Sisters, however, is how great a waste it is. Despite the irritating script and visuals that are so sporadically fanciful that it looks as though Arthur Allan Seidelman
is discovering the effects features on Final Cut Pro and wants to show them off, the cast is uniformly stellar. Bello
’s Marcia is deplorable, but she acts the hell out of her; same goes for Masterson and Elizabeth Banks
as the uniformly reviled Nancy. All, really, are much better than the material given, so it is unclear what possessed such a rock-sold cast to sign on to such a screenplay, but at least their presence makes the film occasionally bearable.