Saturday, September 13, 2014

New movie review: The Skeleton Twins

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play siblings in the new comedy-drama The Skeleton Twins.

There are bonds that can never be broken, and there are bonds that must be broken. As The Skeleton Twins progresses, it becomes clear which are which. It is undeniable that twins Maggie and Milo share the former, but as the movie begins, they have not spoken in 10 years. The intrigue comes less from the dawning realization of what drove this wedge between them and more from the careful mending of the wounds it left.

When we meet Milo, he is living in a cluttered apartment in Los Angeles and seems to be reeling from a breakup with his most recent boyfriend. He blasts his stereo, hops in the bathtub, and slashes his wrists. Across the country in upstate New York, Maggie stares at herself in the mirror, then looks down at a handful of pills. She, too, is going to end it, but moments before she does, she gets a call that her brother is in the hospital. She picks him up and invites him to stay with her and her new husband. He accepts the invitation, and everything else flows from there.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play the titular siblings. Every scene between the two resonates with depth, warmth, and humor, and despite the movie’s dark tone, the pairing of Wiig and Hader cannot help but bring light to the proceedings. Though not portraying solely dramatic or tragic characters, the actors are afforded the opportunity to show new sides to their well-known comic personae.

In particular, Hader infuses Milo with the energy and wit so often indicative of the characters he plays in his films or on Saturday Night Live, but The Skeleton Twins allows him to show what happens to the smartass when the door closes and there is no else left in the room. His go-to tactic of making jokes even in the darkest times reveals a person who wants to make others happy despite his own happiness remaining elusive.

As Milo is released from the hospital, he is reading “Marley and Me.” Maggie arrives and accidentally spoils the ending. He plays the victim, and she feels bad, before he reveals that he already knew how it ends, that everyone knows how it ends. She says, “I see you’ve still got your sense of humor.” He responds, “They can’t take that away from me.” This is another joke, but it also is a moment of raw vulnerability. He is a struggling actor who waits tables and keeps only the company of his fish. All he may have left are his wisecracks.

Maggie is so mired in her rut that even her humor escapes her. Her job is uninspiring, and though her marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson) tethers her to reality, it also causes her no end of guilt. We never see what her days were like before Milo showed up, but Wiig’s performance makes it clear Maggie checked out of her life a long time ago.

The ways she tries to shake herself out of her depression are observational of the limited options she sees for herself and the passive role she plays in her day-to-day interactions. But the more she lies to herself, the deeper into the muck she sinks. Milo comes back into her life at her lowest moment, but it is just the nadir of a low ebb that has gone on since before we can know. She did not get here overnight. She got here over years.

Wilson’s scene-stealing turn as the husband who may be the nicest guy in the world is both hilarious and sad. A genuinely good, generally happy person who plays fantasy football and enjoys The Deadliest Catch, Lance does not belong among these people. His light-hearted optimism is the antithesis of what Milo and Maggie experience, and his persistent upbeat attitude has the effect of rubbing the siblings’ noses in a state of being they could never enjoy.

Though there is some family backstory, including a father who battled depression and lost, the script relies too much on “The Big Event” in their lives that brought Milo and Maggie to this point. Writer-director Craig Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman seem to understand what it is like to suffer from depression and the difficult process of recovery, but they seem at a loss to explain its origins.

Depression is an impossibly multifaceted disease caused by myriad genetic and environmental factors, and it would be a lot to ask for a movie to explain. But by pinning so much of the siblings’ current state to one major event from their teenage years, the movie undermines its potential for exploration and growth, instead settling for deep characters defined by shallow circumstance.

That Hader and Wiig are great in these roles in undeniable, but one gets the feeling that given more incisive material, their performances could have been transcendent. At the same time, the filmmakers clearly set out to make an affecting comedy split evenly between pathos and humor. At that, they have succeeded, and no one can take that away from them.

See it? Yes.

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