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The Skeleton Twins

Skeleton Twins

Woah, wait, it's not THAT kind of film about siblings. This ain't
no Flowers in the Attic type stuff

dir: Craig Johnson

2014

This is an odd film, but an enjoyable one, in that I enjoyed it, and it was odd. If the mantra has long been than comedians in dramatic roles is a surer bet than dramatic actors in comedic roles, then the makers here are doubling down by having both Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as the lead siblings in this drama.

The problem, if it is a problem, is that because of their pedigree as Saturday Night Live alums, everything they do we naturally assume is being done for comedic effect. That includes even in serious, dramatic moments. I recall reading an interview with Wiig where she spoke of being at a screening, and being frustrated that people were laughing at parts of the movie where she wasn’t going for laughs and the script wasn’t aiming for them either.

Well, boo bloody hoo. Rarely can we exactly control what other people get from what we do. Plus it’s her own fault for being so funny for so long.

The Skeleton Twins is a pretty serious film. Two siblings deal with the trauma of their troubled adolescence, in terrible ways, before reconnecting after ten years of estrangement.

Hader and Wiig, however, are naturally creative hams. Hams of the highest order. They’re hams of such saltiness and high quality that they can’t help but do their thing in scenes where other actors would have played it straight, utterly straight, and the audience wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Being who they are, their slightest goofy expression or eye squint, and we’re rolling around on the floor like we’ve been pepper-sprayed with joy.

Maybe not. Did I say before how serious this flick is? We’re introduced to the characters, as adults, by watching the male of the fraternal twins (Hader) elegantly organise his own suicide while sculling liquor and loudly playing Blondie.

In the very next scene, we see the female of the twinset (Wiig) staring at a palm filled with pills. She, too, at almost the same moment, we are meant to believe, is contemplating checking out of the carnival of life as well. She is interrupted by the phone-call telling her that her brother has come to some self-administered mischief.

She is East Coast, he is West Coast, and they haven’t seen each other for ten years, since the twilight of their teenage years. We are somehow meant to believe that these champs are in their late twenties?

It’s a mild level of disbelief suspension required. They are coy, almost awkward with each other, but their tentative steps towards reconnecting mean that Milo accepts Maggie’s invitation to come stay with her while he recovers from his suicide attempt.

Once they both come back to the upstate New York town that spawned them, we’re not really going to become privy to what motivates these fairly damaged people. Milo is gay, and pines for a person you would think is probably the single worst person on the planet for him to pine over. Maggie is depressed too, and as in all classic cinematic fiction, a depressed woman finds satisfaction only through fucking around.

She’s married, of course, but her doofus of a husband (Luke Wilson), despite being a nice chap, doesn’t give her the cheap thrill that fucking an Australian-sounding scuba instructor provides. And when I say nice chap, I mean he comes across as a completely unreflective harmless moron.

I wouldn’t write the following unless it was germane to a review, but there is some fairly dark material in this flick, which is what makes it even more galling when it’s described as a comedy. Milo ‘bumps’ into a former teacher (Ty Burrell) with whom he had a sexual relationship when he was fifteen.

The teacher, who bangs on and on about Moby Dick, which tells me the film scores a +10 on the Pretentiousness Metre already, is understandably uncomfortable about the encounter. For all intents and purposes he shuts down Milo’s advances, but then still finds time to ‘reconnect’ with him later on, away from prying eyes.

Yes, ‘reconnect’ is a euphemism. It kinda made me sad to see it, too.

That element of the story isn’t cut and dried. I would never go so far as to argue that the teacher character is a sympathetic character, in that he is what he is, and did what he did, but Milo complicates matters by arguing, when it inevitably causes a screaming match with his sister, that what ‘happened’, way back in the day, wasn’t as simple as a predator exploiting a child.

I don’t know how to argue with that. I don’t want to argue with that. It’s used as a precipitating event, in terms of compelling Milo and Maggie to hash things out towards the end of the film, but I’m not sure how central it is to the drama.

The fact that the two siblings, regardless of whatever may or may not be going on in their lives, are so almost comically drawn to suicide, is only ever explained by the fact that their father committed suicide when they were kids.

Maybe I’m getting too old, or maybe I’ve just known too many people who’ve either done it themselves (and left a achingly slow to heal wound in the lives of the people they left behind), or who’ve been touched by it through their family or friends doing it, it just feels wrong when I see it treated so almost casually in a movie. Even in a movie where there is care taken to make the characters seem like believable, real people struggling with stuff many of us struggle with or some of us don’t, it just feels, I dunno, a bit wrong.

Suicide in this flick is treated like something you attempt the second something in life doesn’t go your way. Broken shoelace? Attempt suicide. Stubbed toe? Attempt suicide. Can’t find something to watch on cable? Attempt suicide. It would be unfair to say it’s treated in a cavalier, almost comedic fashion, but it is something that makes me fairly uncomfortable.

That being said, the main performances are still quite strong, especially Hader as Milo. Wiig is just as good, but Hader’s character is more complicated. The elements of his character, and the sadness he feels when contemplating his life are really well portrayed.

The strongest moment, apart from virtually any scene in which Milo and Maggie are together, or even his scenes suffused with longing with his former teacher / abuser, is when he gives what amounts to the film’s mission statement. He painfully sets out to his sister how when they were still kids, and he was being bullied, his father tried to reassure him that the guy who was bullying him would most likely go on to have a shitty, unfulfilling life, and that post-high school, then it would be Milo’s time to shine.

When all grown up, finding out that the shitty guy who bullied him is a happy and well-adjusted family man crushes Milo, who is obviously less than fulfilled by the path of his own life.

That moment isn’t a cathartic one, like the movie creates/contrives for its ending, but it’s an emotionally true one, and quite rightly it doesn’t present the issue and then find any kind of resolution for it. Milo and Maggie are both people struggling with mental illness, in the form of depression, and their coping mechanisms leave much to be desired. If we get to the end and aspire to a hopeful ending, well, the film is honest enough to not come up with some easy set of answers that guarantee perfect happiness and joy for the rest of their lives. Like a lot of decent films in this genre (whatever pigeonhole you want to imagine it’s in: Adults Dealing with Childhood Trauma, Adult Survivors of Abuse, Drag Queens and Their Co-Dependent Enablers), the ending represents a potentially new starting point, rather than a resolution.

Hader and Wiig seem to be very comfortable performing together, and that probably comes from having worked together for so many years on SNL. They create a believably prickly sibling energy in their interactions, and they seem perfectly suited to their roles as damaged siblings unsatisfied with their lives.

Which sounds like a laugh a minute, doesn’t it? It’s generally a quiet, studied kind of flick, and occasionally I’m in the mood for that kind of thing, and I was in this instance. I wasn’t expecting a comedy, and I didn’t get one, but I did get to enjoy a flick where people muddle through their lives and are still left in a bit of a muddle at the end, but they hold on to some kind of hope that life is still worth living, compared to the alternative.

That’s more than enough for me, sometimes.

7 times I wonder whether the lip synch to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now at the three quarter mark is terrible, awesome or terribly awesome out of 10

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“Maggie, I know the dog dies. Everyone knows the dog dies. It's the book where the dog dies.” – sounds like a laugh riot to me – The Skeleton Twins

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