Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Skeleton Twins (2014) – Review

Review: The Skeleton Twins is an effecting character drama that runs the gambit, feeling in different moments hysterical and tremendously sad.

The film is about twin siblings, Maggie and Milo. They both attempt to commit suicide on the same day, leading to a reunion after spending ten years apart. They get along famously, but their troubles (and past conflicts) seem to find a way to muddle things up causing Maggie and Milo to revert back to their inherent sadness (brought upon by the state of their lives) and bickering.

The best aspect of The Skeleton Twins is its ability to create very funny moments when the film is more or less overtly sad. Writer-director Craig Johnson takes full advantage of his great leads, relying on their comedy skills while also pulling very strong dramatic performances out of them. There is a scene in which Maggie and Milo lip-sync along to Jefferson Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (which some of us associate wholeheartedly with the film Mannequin). It is a show-stopping moment, and among the best in film so far this year. It is the kind of scene that makes a film. It also represents Maggie and Milo’s relationship perfectly, from taking the lyrics to the song literally to the strong performances from the actors. There is so much trauma in their past, but somehow they continue to fight on – but maybe the song is a bit too optimistic, as their overlying sadness is almost unrelenting. Thus, the scene is the kind of big moment we expect from cinema, signifying that everything is going to be okay in the end, but Johnson takes the scene and then shoves the characters off a cliff (so to speak) dramatically.

The film is very intelligent dramatically. Johnson is aware of film troupes, even those in indie film. The world is not so simple. Johnson tries to take a more realistic approach to his characters, giving them flaws that are not easily overcome, leaving the film to feel much more like a drama than a comedy (despite its face value comedic casting). The funny moments work to ease the tension and give the audience a release, but they are undercut by the overall sad tone. Things do not feel like they will be alright. There is a cloud of doom that sort of hangs over Maggie and Milo, which becomes clearer as Johnson digs deeper into their backgrounds and lives. They can feign happiness, but it never lasts. There are deeper rooted issues that seem to have tragic implications. The film does start with them both attempting suicide, after all. Those feelings do not just magically disappear – especially when one’s mundane and disappointing life falls back into its suffocating routine.

The Skeleton Twins, however, is not just a slow trudge towards inevitable death, with life being a burdensome weight that finally gets the best of our heroes in the end. That very well may happen. Again, Maggie and Milo are not going to be fully okay – at least not without working through some big issues. And yet, Johnson is not entirely unoptimistic. The film has this feeling of hope that is mostly crushed in the beginning, as the characters cannot seem to get out of their own ways (self-sabotaging), but it seems to find a way through the pain, helped along by the lighter scenes (like the two lip-syncing), finding a place by the end in which it does not seem completely unreasonable to believe that maybe, together, they might figure things out.

Hope is an interesting concept. Some claim it is the evil that came out of Pandora’s Box – the downfall of man being that he thinks that something better is possible when it really is not and thus not accepting the reality of his own circumstances and never being happy with what he has. On the other hand though, what is life without hope? For many of us, how do we get through today without the belief that tomorrow will be better (whether that is remotely true or not)? Johnson understands that The Skeleton Twins is ultimately a film (which on some level is made to entertain) and thus wants to give off the feeling that even in the direst of situations, yes there is hope that tomorrow might be better and you can build from there. Johnson does this even in spite of the film’s clear cynicism and commitment to realism.

The Skeleton Twin is at its heart a film about two very emotionally troubled people who need help, and maybe they can find that in each other. The performances are excellent and the drama is handled very well. The comedy too is great. If there is anything amiss, the pacing is a bit slow, but I think that is an intentional byproduct of the overall sad tone. Overall, it is one of the better character dramas of the year.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: While The Skeleton Twins is Craig Johnson’s second feature film, it is really his introduction to most filmgoers. It is quite an introduction as he handles drama, comedy and his actors very well. He is certainly a filmmaker to watch going forward.

Composer Nathan Larson accompanies the film’s tone very well with his score; although, I would say that his work is mostly overshadowed by the film’s soundtrack. Reed Morano’s cinematography at first feels fairly straightforward, and the shooting style of the film is rather standard; however, there is a real beauty to her work. The color palette she plays in works hand-in-hand with the overall tone and seems to even inform the audience’s reading of the performances. It is excellent work (much like her work on HBO’s Looking). Ola Maslik’s production design too works very well with all the other parts to create a unified feeling. Her work also provides a visual touchstone that grounds the film in realism, as everything looks very naturalistic.

The performances in the film are very good across the board, and the film is really built upon them. Joanna Gleason and Kathleen Rose Perkins are good in very small roles. Ty Burrell is good as Rich, a man who may or may not have taken advantage of Milo in his youth. Many years later the two still seem to have a connection. Burrell plays Rich with this undercurrent of uneasiness, like he knows he is doing something wrong but cannot help himself. Boyd Holbrook’s Billy, Maggie’s scuba instructor, is almost the complete opposite. He is exudes confidence. He does not care if what he is doing is wrong. He is a bad boy, providing a foil for Maggie to bounce off when she is not sure she wants to be with her husband Lance who is a nice guy. Luke Wilson plays Lance with an unrelenting cheerfulness, something he does well. He is seems to be emotionally much less complicated than either Maggie of Milo, which to some extend puts them at odds (because, how can he understand them). Bill Hader is very, very good as Milo. His performance is both very big when it needs to be and also very quiet in the more dramatic moments. He has a real dramatic talent. As does Kristen Wiig, who plays Maggie. She too is very funny, but handles the dramatic work with depth and emotional intelligence. The film is successful because Hader and Wiig turn in great work.

Summary & score: The Skeleton Twins is a strong character drama that features moments that are very funny and moments that are very sad, equally and skillfully portrayed through very good performances from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. 7/10

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