Monday, October 27, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

Here we find a set of fraternal adult twins. On the day the brother attempts suicide, his estranged sister picks him up from the hospital, her own attempt disrupted by the emergency call.  Together they have cheated death by their own hands, and so she brings him to her home.  At home, she lives unhappily with a nice, oblivious husband.  Here, they commence a second childhood.  They grapple with the unresolved issues of their shared past: an absent mother, a father who successfully killed himself, their individual sexual and emotional dysfunctions.  Over the course of the film, there will be realizations, confrontations, intense sadness shaded through a comic lens darkly.  Take this plot. Or, swap out or in as you feel fit: other varieties of siblings, a road trip, a quirky child or curmudgeonly, aging patriarch.  Then, choose your cast from any of the following: sketch comedy alums, cult sitcom alums, multi-Oscar nominated dramatic actors, Wes Anderson alums.  Release.

There you have it: the makings of a type of genre film formula routinely paraded as something surprising, something new.  

This is The Skeleton Twins.  It is not new. It is not surprising. It is not unsuccessful, but it's also not particularly memorable.  
The plot is as above, with all the themes weighing as falsely heavy as one would expect.  It's yet another case of forced literariness; a push toward book club keywords that invoke suffering, hardship, and whispers of Oscar nominations.  Deep depressions, suicide, statutory rape, struggles with identity, chronic infidelity, family dysfunction, all the usual suspects are here, and all of them pop up to speak some kind of strange truth.  I've become a bit disenchanted with films of this ilk lately, and maybe it's my bad attitude, but I've become convinced that the only thing that really matters, the only thing we really want to see, is which actors step into the roles and how they fare there.

So, The Skeleton Twins is less about emotional trauma than it is about Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader making their official debut as dramatic actors.  Wiig isn't really new to this game, and Hader has flirted with the theme before, but when they're together there's a type of novelty to watching Gilly and Stefon melt into a pool of festering self-loathing.  It's not hard to believe, too, that years of sketch comedy and playing off of one another on SNL have allowed the two to develop something that looks like sibling communication on screen. As Milo and Maggie, they seem to be able to read each other. Their characters speak in glances and silent tics that successfully ice out Maggie's doltish husband (Luke Wilson).  When they battle, the barbs do have the appearance of cutting deeper than they otherwise might.    
They're what you're here for with The Skeleton Twins, and the nuances and disappointingly bland turns of the narrative mean little by comparison.  While it seems trite to claim that this is the moment Hader and Wiig "break free" of their comedic roots and prove to us that they're something other (haven't they both done that by now?), each is heartbreaking in their own way.  Hader, in particular, seems the standout here.  Milo -- an openly gay, emotionally broken, failed actor -- is perhaps what it looks like when a character like Stefon is dialed back from a camp 11 to a mumblecore 1.  He's self-destructive to a fault and outwardly vulnerable, but his sarcasm may be the film's saving grace.  Milo squeaks in lines and moments that lift an otherwise bland film, at times, to something that passably resembles greatness.  Too bad the rest of the film seems to want so badly to burden itself with ballast.

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