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Movie

The Skeleton Twins
(2014)

 

Another entry in the burgeoning field of comedy actors receiving kudos for testing their serious thesping chops in indie dramedies. Craig Johnson’s second feature, about twins reuniting in the midst of deep personal disarray, is well observed but deeply unremarkable. What lifts it are the performances of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, evidencing, if any was needed, that they can bring the genuine and sensitive with the same accomplishment as their more familiar larking about.

Johnson and Mark Heyman (Black Swan) set up a tantalising “unbeknownst” opener that never really follows through with the gumption it might; synchronicitously, Maggie (Wiig) is about to take a load of pills just as she gets a call that Milo (Hader), whom she hasn’t seen in a decade, has been hospitalised following a suicide attempt.

The picture’s ensuing touchstones are a mixture of the recognisably drama-feeding (lives that never explored their potential; a home broken when their father committed suicide; a sister stuck in boring but reliable marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson), conducting impulsive affairs; a flamboyantly gay brother failing at his acting career) but occasionally surprises.

The subplot involving Milo’s illicit relationship with a former teacher (Ty Burrell) doesn’t play out quite as expected; while Maggie points to the fact that Milo was fifteen at the time and he constitutes a child molester, the most condemnatory behaviour we see is that he only really lets Milo back into his life in order to get his script passed on to Milo’s agent (a succinct means of illustrating that he was and is using Milo).

Lance is the very definition of dependable, but in Wilson’s capable hands he gradually becomes something more (his improvised conversation with Maggie about his shoes, “a hybrid of shoes and a foot”). There’s a scene with their mother (Joanna Gleeson) that probably overdoes the flaky New Ager who has zero interest in her former life (she has a new family), but is effective nevertheless (“I’m sending you the light”). It goes to the heart of the picture, that no one lives their dream life, but neither burying nor wallowing in troubles represents a path through the minefield.

As ever with movies off this ilk, resorting to shorthand clichés renders it less effective. You know the type of thing; childhood flashbacks, music montages, set piece bonding scenes. Milo working for Lance and picking up twigs delicately, rather than armfuls of branches, does indeed identify him as (in his own words) “another classic gay cliché”. The Halloween dress-up as a recreation of their childhood, only to be interrupted by Maggie realising Milo has resumed a relationship with her Rich (his teacher) runs the well-oiled route of comedy to drama and suffers from such calculation; the symbolism with the dead goldfish, saving Maggie in the pool, or the reversal of who’s driving who (coming to who’s rescue) at the end is also less than subtle. Still, the Sundance jury must have thought it was doing something very right as they gave it Best Screenplay.

As such, it’s the improvised moments that shine, as the naturalness of the stars is allowed to break out (the Marley and Me conversation, nitrous oxide in the dental office) The glorious highlight is Milo and (an initially reluctant) Maggie miming to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.

Hader probably has the more difficult job, required to walk a line in not falling back on the merely campy. Wiig might be more impressive though, as she is required to rein it in for much of the time. To Johnson’s credit, he’s unafraid of depicting less than likeable protagonists following their own self-centred paths, others around them be damned.

While the picture is guilty at times of over statement, it allows itself the subtlety of action rather than illustration in arriving at a point where these two can only be whole by being together. Less venerable is the general trend to formula indie fare, whereby pictures follow the same equivalent beats of the big Hollywood comedies; for all its presumed edginess a picture like The Skeleton Twins is ultimately playing things just as safe.

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