Film Views: “The Skeleton Twins”

The campaign to promote a movie is often likened to elections:  create a buzz about the product (in this case, a film) by repeating a message of the film in the trailer that accentuates the positive elements and downplays any shortcomings.  Film distribution companies have found (probably through audience testing) that moviegoers like to see trailers that give them a good sample about what the story is about.  The problem I’ve seen is that many of a film’s best scenes are in the trailer — which leave very little for the audience to enjoy when they go and see the film.

I felt that way about “The Skeleton Twins.”  The film stars Kristen Wiig (Maggie) and Bill Hader (Milo) as twin siblings who are going through relationship problems, and coincidentally, try to commit suicide on the same day.  The two haven’t seen each other in a decade, but Maggie travels out to Los Angeles to visit her brother after his suicide attempt and to bring him back to her home so he can recover.  That’s the set-up:  estranged siblings who find a way to reconnect with each other.  Along the way, we learn interesting tidbits about their lives, get treated to a lip-synched performance of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship, see Maggie’s marriage fall apart, and Milo making bad decisions to reconnect with a person who may have molested him as a teenager.  It’s not a particularly funny movie, but Wiig and Hader have worked together for years on “Saturday Night Live,” that their ability to riff makes the comedy seem unforced and natural.  Comedic actors like Hader and Wiig sometimes have a difficult time transitioning to drama, but the two of them do a fantastic job of portraying essentially the latch-key generation (Gen X, Slacker-types) who are now in their 40s and are having difficulty with emotional connections.  Being raised by parents who were self-absorbed, weird, or even depressed made Maggie and Milo form hard shells to protect their emotional vulnerabilities, have a sense of humor that’s tinged with more than a hint of cynicism, and feel very alone. Director Craig Johnson puts a fine point on their sense of aloneness by filming scenes where both Maggie and Milo won’t even sit near each other.

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This, of course, accentuates the sense that the twins are emotionally distant from each other.  Only later do we see the camera angles film them together with less distance. Skeleton Twins 2It’s a common editorial trick to do things like this, but it’s more pronounced in “The Skeleton Twins” as Maggie and Milo chew up scene after scene baring their emotional wounds to each other and the audience.

Like I wrote earlier, both actors are very good in this film.  They don’t struggle to find the right tone or color a scene with too much pathos, and when watching the film, one quickly forgets their SNL roots and sees them for the characters they portray.  That’s a compliment to their abilities.  But actors can only do so much to save a film.  If the material isn’t all that interesting, or if the movie trailer gives away too many of the best scenes in the film, the work suffers from surprising the audience or telling a compelling story.  “The Skeleton Twins” has moments where it becomes very interesting.  However, it’s fails to follow through on one of the most engaging stories in the film:  Milo’s relationship with his high school teacher.  The tension builds in the scenes between the two, and the conflict sort of gets resolved, but it feels rushed.  Conversely, the story of Maggie’s rickety marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson) isn’t as compelling — yet the film devotes a lot of time to it.  And perhaps that’s the problem with the story:  it’s about siblings trying to reconnect, yet their story isn’t that interesting because they only skate around the issue of parental neglect and even death by couching it in vague flashbacks and simmering resentments.  It’s never fleshed out to the point that we, as an audience, cares.  What I cared about was Hader’s character, who seemed to suffer more emotional injury from his past (and recent past). If the story was about Milo, it might have been a more engaging film.

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