As cinematic curses go, an argument could be made that Anton Chekhov is the silver screen's pre-2004 Boston Red Sox; several dozen trips to the plate have resulted in strikeouts nearly every time. The only enduring Chekhov adaptation remains Louis Malle's Vanya On 42nd Street, perhaps because the filmmakers hedged their bets and kept the action on the stage, never venturing past the rehearsal phase. More common are films like The Sisters, a turgid updating of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, which can't wriggle free from its stifling stage roots, even though screenplay (by Richard Alfieri, based on his own play) takes enough liberties with the text to render it completely banal. Chekhov needs room to breathe onscreen—his plays don't provide spatial expansion on their own—but Alfieri and director Arthur Allan Seidelman confine the action to a handful of locations, wherein the characters mainly stand around screaming insults at each other. In doing so, they not only fail to crack the Chekhov curse, they introduce a whole new set of problems.
Much of the first half takes place in a spacious Ivy League library that serves as a break room/shouting arena for angst-ridden professors and other hard-line academics. As the film opens, bickering sisters Maria Bello and Mary Stuart Masterson are frantically preparing a birthday surprise for their younger sibling Erika Christensen, a troubled student to whom they both feel maternally connected. When a man (Tony Goldwyn) from their past makes a surprise appearance, he drums up dark memories of their childhood in Charleston, where Bello's relationship with their predatory father left permanent scars. More drama brews in the simmering rivalry between two young professors vying for Christensen's affections: the straight-arrow (and ironically unsavory) Chris O'Donnell, and the bile-spewing (and ironically noble) Eric McCormack. And still more fireworks go off whenever the three sisters' only brother (Alessandro Nivola) brings his ditzy sexpot girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) around.
Alfieri replaces Chekhov's words with a lot of catty put-downs and pseudo-intellectual dialogue, and Seidelman replaces the traumatic subtext with Vaseline-lensed flashbacks that are embarrassingly literal. The Sisters is still somewhat compelling thanks to Bello, whose unguarded, provocative work continually resuscitates this corpse of a melodrama whenever it lays fallow. At the very least, Chekhov's basic premise turns the burners up enough to keep the action lively, which may explain why so many recognizable names were drawn to such a marginal production. But here, they make a lot of noise over nothing.