' ' Cinema Romantico: The Skeleton Twins

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

While I don’t know the exact nature of Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader’s friendship, I know they both arrived as co-Not Ready For Prime Time Players on NBC’s redoubtable weekend sketch show “Saturday Night Live” in 2005 and left it close to the same time (she in 2012, he in 2013). And so while it would seem apparent they had a significant amount of time to mutually hone their comedic timing, it’s also possible they developed an off-screen rapport. I offer this mere speculation on account of their considerable onscreen fraternal relationship as “The Skeleton Twins” themselves, a brother and sister, Milo and Maggie, who have not spoken in ten years since the suicide of their father.

As performers, Hader thankfully leaves the Stefan stereotype behind and forges something more authentic while Wiig, never as manic as some SNL actors, finds a perfect vessel for her low-watt mumbly line readings. And the chemistry they achieve is the film’s foremost quality, one grounded in tenderness and antagonism, and evocative of the very real way in which you can go so long without seeing someone you once knew so well and fall right back into step. Yet, as swiftly as their touchy-feely camaraderie returns, they still fail to find traction in their separate lives.

The film, directed by Craig Johnson, occurs around Halloween, which might suggest a nod to how All Hallow’s Eve is meant as a reference to the dead, to a father long gone and a mother (Joanne Gleason in a one scene walk-off) who is essentially dead to them. But anymore Halloween, in a pop-culture sense, is less about its original roots than an excuse for people to dress up in costume and be someone else for a night. Essentially this is what Maggie and Milo spend the movie doing. Their Starship “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” sing along, which at first glance evokes an unreleased SNL sketch, has a darker edge rumbling below the surface, one suggesting this performing pretense is where they escape to avoid introspection.

Having come home to stay with his sister after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Milo passes himself off to those who don’t know any better as a semi-successful actor in L.A. with an agent when he really just waits tables at a tourist restaurant in Hollywood. His jokey defense mechanism to genuine emotional queries is so obvious that Maggie says his punchlines before he does. Not that Maggie’s any better. She is married to Lance (Luke Wilson) in one of those anciently misguided efforts to “settle down” because now you’re an “adult” and that’s what you “do”. They are trying to get pregnant, but not really, because Maggie is still taking birth control and not telling her spouse. She’s not ready to be a mom. Or maybe it’s that she’s having an affair with her scuba instructor, a subplot that feels too much like a writerly ruse, presenting her a mountain of dysfunction she needs to scale.

More successful is Milo’s sordid secret of the past, one involving an old teacher from high school (Ty Burrell) with whom he had an illicit relationship. Yet even if the teacher is consciously portrayed as emotionally abusive, the notion is imparted that Milo still found genuine emotional benefits in the connection and that losing it might have triggered his freefall as much as losing his father. This is a testament to the film’s moral cloudiness.

To be sure, “The Skeleton Twins” does not think much of the people in this world. Everyone here comes across not simply emotionally unbalanced but selfish, and cruel if their selfish needs go unrequited. Only Lance seems immune – then again, immune might not be the appropriate word to describe him. Oblivious might do him more justice. The script subtly portrays his character as ignorant of his wife’s troubling depression, jokingly dismissing it as “land mines”, assuming that it just goes away if he ignores it.

For a film, however, preaching the world’s inherent existentialism, the conclusion aligns far too neatly with the beginning and with the notion of our characters as twins. It is falsely melodramatic, as if the filmmakers didn’t quite know how to get these characters to a logical end point. Still, in its aftermath, the film’s ultimate avoidance of an Everyone’s All Better Now! ideal is welcomingly bold and rings true. Milo and Maggie have simply gotten through the darkest hour of night and made the choice to go on. That’s enough for now.


Anonymous said...

You and I often agree on movies, but alas - not about this one. It's way up in my top 10 so far this year. I didn't hear a false note in it. But then I have to admit that I'm a sucker for ends that tie into beginnings in a neat way. I think it's the writer in me that aims for that kind of closure.

Oh well. Those things happen. There will be other movies that we can meet over.

Nick Prigge said...

I often like writing that aims for that sort of closure in harmony with the beginning.....but there was just something about the way they presented the rest of the movie that, to me, felt false about the climax. Still, with or without that climax, I liked the absolute end. And I did really like most of it.

Derek Armstrong said...

I'll agree with Velvet -- this is my actual top-ranked film of the year so far, even with an understanding of your complaints about it. It walloped me, but I agree that I might have been wearing "festival goggles." (Great term I learned recently, which speaks to the inflation of the quality of a film because you saw it at a film festival.) I don't expect it to end this year at #1, but for now, I've seen nothing finer in 2014.