Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

The Return of the Gruesome Twosome
Better Late Than Never

Bellingham native Craig Johnson's second feature (after the filmed-in-Seattle True Adolescents) is The Skeleton Twins, a story of dysfunctional siblings trying to function and benefiting from some great performances by SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig (who haven't appeared in a film together since Adventureland away back in 2009).

Milo Dean (Hader) is a struggling actor in LA, gay, and in mourning due to post-parting depression. He writes a terse note "To Whom It May Concern: See You Later" turns up his favorite music...loud...then sinks into a bathtub and slits his wrists.

Cut to sister Maggie contemplating a handful of sleeping pills, when the phone rings. It's the hospital, telling her that Milo has attempted suicide. She looks at the pills. "Uh, he's okay" says the voice over the phone, confused by her long pause. "Good" comes the tentative reply.

Already there are parallels between brother and sister with the conflict apparent between them. She's trying to commit suicide but gets interrupted because he did it first. She flies out to California to see him; they haven't in ten years. "You changed your hair" is the first thing he says to her.

None of this is played for laughs, but comedy comes out of Hader and Wiig even through drama, and their shared past as performers fills in for the lifetime of shared memories of family members. There is an unquantifiable sixth sense in their reactions to each other and how they play off each other that goes far beyond the written page to timing, reaction, and suppressed thought that seems to seep out of their pores. It sometimes takes one, two, even three beats before one realizes that they're just messing with each other or being serious. Hader has the more flamboyant part, Wiig, the repressed one, but they exchange personas constantly throughout the movie in varying degrees of hope and despair.
Wiig plays a dental assistant who, after huffing nitrous, 
tries on an aparatus—her ad-lib cracks Hader up
When Maggie takes the wounded Milo home with her to recuperate, it's a bit of an invited invasion. They haven't seen in each other in a decade. She's gotten married to a fairly cheery guy (Luke Wilson, always good to see) and they're trying to have kids. The idea terrifies Maggie, and she's sneaking birth control pills to avoid it. She's also taking scuba diving lessons and carrying on a guilty affair with her hunkish Australian instructor (Boyd Holbrook). Milo takes the opportunity to meet up with a former teacher (Ty Burrell) with whom he had an affair as a student, and that does not go well, as he's now married with an eleven year old child—er, his wife and he have an eleven year old child (that would be better phrasing). You can't go home again.

But, sometimes it pays a visit. Their self-absorbed Mom (Joanna Gleason) comes by (she's in town for a new age retreat) and old animosities flair up, the chakras, evidently, being extraordinarily fiery. The kids were always closer to their father, who, himself, committed suicide, and, no doubt, imprinted his bi-polar giddy sense of life amidst the morbid drudgery of day-to-day living on them. If the film has a weakness, it's in the Mom's portrayal—she's all new age ideologue without a smidgen of complexity or roundness of character, and stands out like a cracked healing crystal from the rest of the dramatis personæ (in fact, she might have escaped from a Coen Brothers movie. Hmmm). It doesn't do the movie, or any satiric jab it might make about this sort of thing, any good.

No, you want to talk about good? That would be Hader and Wiig doing a hilarious lip-sync of Starship's feel-good "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" that just keeps getting better and better until the sequence ends. It's one of those magical moments that tends to obliterate the memory of any weaknesses the film may have, and propel it along on the good will of that one bit. It can't last, however, and the ending is a bit of a let-down from what has come before. Still, The Skeleton Twins is smart, funny, multi-layered and not content to merely "get by" (as is often the case)—and if it was, one gets the impression that Hader and Wiig wouldn't allow it.

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