Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Skeleton Twins (***)

Directed by Craig Johnson


There's a measure of unhappiness that's displayed in The Skeleton Twins that's hard to pull off in most movies. The kind of depression that comes with everyday life, that's easy to dismiss when watching from the outside. Midway through the film, a character played by Bill Hader recites to his sister - played by Kristen Wiig - of his long-held belief that all of the social classes of high school become inverted in adulthood. The bullying jocks will end up never leaving home, settling for mediocrity in a podunk town, while the freaks and geeks of the same school will end up becoming the true success stories. It's a myth that we all like to tell ourselves to make up for our adolescent fear of not being popular, or not fitting in. In a monologue of heartbreaking frankness, Hader explains that not only is this theory not full-proof, but quite often the opposite is true: the ones with the least ambition are able to find the easiest path to happiness. Craig Johnson's latest film is an excellent dissection about realizing that there's a difference between being unique and being special, that ideals can only take you so far and that everybody in some form or other is living with a bit of disappointment with how their life has turned out. After all this, if I also told you that this movie is also a successful comedy, you probably wouldn't believe me.

Both Hader and Wiig are legendary Saturday Night Live allumni, the MVPs of the show's most recent successful era. While Andy Sandburg brought SNL into the modern age with his Digital Shorts, Wiig and Hader proved that SNL's bread-and-butter skits can still be successful if you have talented enough cast members. In Skeleton Twins, both performers are very funny, but that is not their ultimate goal. Wiig had already shown in Bridesmaids to a certain extent that she has the ability to show a melancholy shade underneath the funny lady surface, but that was a much broader comedy that may have succeeded even if Wiig didn't give that performance so much depth. This is Hader's first real attempt at a dramatic role, and you can see where working with longtime collaborator Wiig helps him in his exploration. Hader plays Milo, a depressed aspiring actor who, in a moment of drunken melodrama, attempts to kill himself by slitting his wrists in the bathtub. Wiig plays his older sister Maggie, a depressed dentist's hygienist who's married to a strapping outdoors-y fellow named Lance (Luke Wilson), and who may harbor some suicidal feelings of her own.

Milo's suicide attempt prompts the brother and sister to reunite after a decade of not speaking to each other, and after Maggie asks, Milo decides to move in with her and Lance in their upstate New York home to both rebuild their relationship and establish a better way to funnel his unhappiness. At home for the first time in ten years, Milo encounters an old friend, Rich (Ty Burrell). Rich was his former English teacher in high school, with whom he had a scandalous affair which led to the loss of Rich's job. For Maggie, her life is muddled by her and Lance's plan to have a child - a child she's not so sure she actually wants. Things get even more complicated when she begins taking scuba lessons with a handsome Australian named Billy (Boyd Holbrook) that may have eyes for her. Both Milo and Maggie deal with their depression in different ways: Milo wears his on his sleeve, another pendant on his freak flag which he wishes to wave with pride but often cowers behind; Maggie hides behind her marriage, her home, her steady job - all apparent signs that she has it "all together" even though the opposite is true.

The script was written by Johnson along with Mark Heyman (who was also a co-writer on Aronofsky's Black Swan in 2010), and what they craft is certainly earnest but also slightly derivative. Bill Hader's Milo is a slightly gayer version of Steve Carrell's beautiful performance in Little Miss Sunshine and Wiig's Maggie is a more unlikeable version of Laura Linney's tremendous portrait of flawed sisterhood in The Savages. It's very obvious the kind of movie that Johnson and Heyman wanted this to be, because we've seen this kind of movie before. Maggie and Milo are even supplied with a backstory involving an equally troubled father (who also tried suicide, but he succeeded) and an absentee mother (a striking, single-scene performance from the great Joanna Gleason). But as director, Johnson is able to give the story a bit of a definitive edge, unafraid to let the film get dark when it calls for it and using a well-timed editing motif (with film editor Jennifer Lee) to establish that the relationship between a brother and a sister doesn't really change much after childhood. There are times where it felt like Johnson loved these characters a whole lot more than his script did.

Despite the hackneyed nature of the characters, Hader and Wiig do a terrific job of making Milo and Maggie their own, their chemistry and familiarity with each other as performers no doubt helping in the creation of a stunningly believable portrait of a close brother and sister. If anything, their so good together that it makes it pretty hard for the audience to believe that they haven't spoken to each other in ten years. Hader's performance as Milo has a great tinge of modesty, never overplaying the homosexual aspect of the character, but always laying the character's vulnerability raw. He takes to the emotional aspects of this performance with a surprising alacrity and never seems out of his element. Wiig's film performances (Bridesmaids, Girl Most Likely) have always had the specter of an emotional train wreck floating underneath the surface, but The Skeleton Twins is certainly the most biting of all these roles. Maggie does some truly despicable things and while she hides her depression behind a sense of humor, Wiig never uses those jokes to disguise the horrid actions of her character. But one of the film's best treats is the hilarious supporting turn from Luke Wilson as Maggie's loyal-to-a-fault husband. Lance is blindingly nice, but allows himself to be clueless to his wife's depression - it's a wonderful example of how being a great guy is sometimes not enough.

The film was produced by the Duplass Brothers and the movie is filled with the kind of sad sack white people problems that they love to showcase. Their interests certainly have not extended past the view of the aimless, melancholy middle-class but they do have an eye for young talent that may take these themes in surprising directions. They produced The One I Love that came out last week, which is a film that kind of trips and falls on its own face but at least it was invested in a truly innovative idea, even if the execution was shaky, to be kind. The Skeleton Twins has a third act that is a bit problematic and it begins to tackle the darkness of suicidal depression in ways that it's not truly able to. But again, at least it had the balls to go there at all. Like The One I Love, Skeleton Twins seems a bit handicapped by a screenplay that too often takes the easy way out of problems. This development is particularly disappointing in Skeleton Twins since everything leading up to it was so honest and pure. But this is a very good film, even if it does fall short of its influences, Little Miss Sunshine and The Savages - if anything, it makes you realize how brilliant those two films are. But it still has the performances from Hader, Wiig and Wilson which is some of the better acting work that I've come across so far in this half of the year.

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