Sunday, September 21, 2014

"The Skeleton Twins"

 4.5 / 5 

Maybe their father, the day he jumped from a building in a last-ditch effort to flee their overbearing mother, fated them to be this way. Maybe melancholy and dissatisfaction is in their DNA.  Maybe they just have to accept, at long last, that they weren't meant to be particularly special.

Whatever the case, Maggie and Milo Dean live the opposite of charmed lives.  They're the kind of people who screw things up just because they can, the way their father did when he jumped, the way their mother does even now when she air-kisses them and aligns their chakras after a few too many bottles of wine.  They wish she could just be a mother; she wishes, half-heartedly, they would come visit her in Sedona.  She has no idea that the reason her son is spending time with his sister in upstate New York is that he just tried to slash his wrists.  He, in turn, is unaware that only the call from the hospital about his incident prevented her from swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills.

This all sounds like an arch tragedy by Tennessee Williams, but The Skeleton Twins offers much more than mere melodrama, and the deft way it balances genuinely difficult characters and situations with grace and humor is in large part due to the pair of warm and magnanimous performances at its core.  Perhaps thanks to their time together on Saturday Night Life, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader do seem as close as fraternal twins might be, even though the movie posits that they haven't spoken to each other in 10 years.

Though they have a fast and deep bond, Maggie and Milo haven't exactly been supportive of each other.  He's a waiter-slash-actor in Los Angeles, she's a suburban housewife who brings him to live in the sweetly perfect home she shares with her husband (Luke Wilson), the kind of guy who has "dude's days" and whose hearty guffaws stem from an honest optimism.

Maggie and Milo simply aren't happy, and they both know that the fact there is no identifiable reason for their depression is not reason for hope; they are just made this way.

Not long after he arrives in town, Milo pays a visit on a former boyfriend (Ty Burrell), whose shock and embarrassment at seeing Milo is due only partially to having a grown son and a girlfriend with whom he wants to "make things work."  They have a complex history, and in one of the many dramatic surprises of The Skeleton Twins, it's neither simple nor straightforward.  It's also wonderfully underplayed and underwritten, offering the actors (all of them, not just Wiig and Hader, but also Burrell, Boyd Holbrook and the terrifyingly chipper Joanna Gleason) the chance to hint at enormous backstories and turmoils.

The Skeleton Twins is always balancing the tensions and disappointments of its characters with genuine humor in ways many films manage but few pull off convincingly.  Even the scene in which Milo tries to cheer up Maggie by lip-synching to Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now (I imagine marketers will use this scene try to pass it all off as a wacky comedy) quickly veers away from camp territory as both characters make it clear that the song is not a cure for their unhappiness -- it's a diversion, a way to mask their pain with mock smiles.

An even better sequence takes place when Milo and Maggie venture out of the house for Halloween. He's dressed in full drag, she's donned a cowgirl costume, and even while the laughs are still going, Craig Johnson and Mark Heywood's screenplay throws a sucker punch; one of the movie's biggest revelations is made as Milo and Maggie confront an ugly past -- and do it while still in full Halloween costume.

A little incongruously filled with '80s music (wouldn't these two have been in high school in the mid-'90s?), The Skeleton Twins is the cinematic offspring of Say Anything and Ordinary People -- an odd hybrid, to be sure, but it works, and beautifully.  I don't expect to see many movies more emotionally honest and satisfying than this one.  Both Maggie and Milo do some pretty terrible things to each other, and neither one lets the other forget.

The Skeleton Twins is unflinching in its look at the realities of two people who grew up and discovered, much to their shock, that life didn't turn out the way they planned.  Their only two options now are to face facts and get on with it, or to end the disappointment right here and now.  The trouble is, neither of those options seem like good one -- but they don't have a choice anymore.  That's what being an adult is all about.  And, yeah, it sucks.  But sometimes, for a few moments, it doesn't.

Viewed Sept. 20, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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