“The Skeleton Twins” is a movie containing many fine moments where actors can really strut their stuff. Yet the comic drama doesn’t hold up. Those moments don’t lead you to any greater understanding of the damaged souls of its two main characters.
To reverse Aristotle’s oft-quoted line, the parts are much greater than than whole.
The film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. So some people, at least those judges, like the compelling mix of humor and abject despair that engulfs these emotionally unstable adult siblings.
This strategy, however, successfully distracts you from the hard fact the filmmakers can’t quite make sense of their chronically unhappy characters.
Certainly there’s no lack of drama to be had with two people seeking relief from life’s disappointments in bouts of drinking, drugs, sex and suicide. But the screenplay, written by its director Craig Johnson in tandem with Mark Heyman, never sheds much light on this self-destruction.
The light that does glance off this semi-tragic duo catches mostly the obvious and superficial. Having one of them, Milo (Bill Hader), a failed actor, point this out to you when he refers to himself as “another tragic gay cliché” does nothing to lessen the problem.
The screenplay serves up a startling opening sequence. Milo, drinking heavily, settles into a warm bath where moments later clouds of blood invade the water to signal a wrist-slashing.
Cut to sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) contemplating a fistful of pills before getting interrupted from her suicide attempt by a phone call about her twin brother’s failed attempt.
Yes, that certainly gives the film more than enough issues to cover in the next 90-some minutes. Not to mention the fact these siblings haven’t spoken to one another for the past decade.
Maggie coaxes Milo into abandoning L.A. for a while to stay with her in their upstate New York hometown. There he meets her easy-going, overly friendly husband Lance (Luke Wilson), has a chance encounter with their mother (Joanna Gleason) — dragged in solely to explain why the siblings pretend she doesn’t exist in a scene that verges on mean-spirited caricature — and a decidedly non-accidental encounter with his first love, a much older man (Ty Burrell).
Meanwhile Maggie’s flirtatious pursuit of her hunky Aussie scuba diving instructor (Boyd Holbrook) clues you to the lack of passion within her marriage, a situation her husband is blithely ignorant of. This is not, you learn, her first dalliance since their wedding.
The screenplay does a good job in slowly lifting the veil on the poisons within these clandestine relationships as well as family skeletons — why else that title? — lurking about the small bucolic town. Suicide, it seems, is a family tradition.
Wiig and Hader do superb jobs of rendering these wounded souls real and empathetic. They make the most out of scenes that find them, as adults, falling back on children’s games — dressing up for Halloween (Hader in bizarre drag), lip-syncing to a favorite song or sucking in nitrous oxide at the office where Maggie works as a dental hygienist.
What comes out of all this game-playing though doesn’t really cut to the heart of the matter. Sure, these two have suffered disappointments beginning at an early age. But for suicide to be the default remedy seems extreme, more a way of getting audience attention than genuine jeopardy the characters permanently face.
The film offers a great platform for these two ex-“SNL” partners to demonstrate a different side to their undoubted talents. But the movie is light on insight, too willing to perform crowd-pleasing tricks but offering up tissue-thin pop psychology.
So the movie engaged me most of the time but left me unsatisfied. The actors, and this includes all the supporting roles, are super but the context has too much BS. I don’t buy it and I’m not sure the filmmakers do either. They chose an easy path to “heartfelt” drama and quick laughs but neglected their troubled characters.
The ending feels like a cop-out that ends the movie but resolves very little other than the siblings are best buddies again. Given what you witness in their interactions together this can be read as either a good thing or a mere continuation of self-destructive behavior.
None of which takes away from one of the stronger ensemble movies of the year. The film also makes an interesting companion piece to film opening the same day, Israel Horovitz’s “My Old Lady,” another (and much better) film about family skeletons and the sins of parents being visited on children.
Perhaps a theme is emerging in this fall season.
Opens: September 12, 2014 (Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions present a Duplass Brothers/Venture Forth production
Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Adriane Lenox
Director: Craig Johnson
Screenwriters: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman
Producers: Stephanie Langhoff, Jennifer Lee, Jacob Pechenik
Executive producers: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Jared Ian Goldman
Director of photography: Reed Morano
Production designer: Ola Maslik
Music: Nathan Larson
Costume designer: Kaela Wohl
Editor: Jennifer Lee
R rating, 92 minutes