Friday, January 2, 2015

The Gruesome Twosome

Year: 2014
Director: Craig Johnson
Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After forcing Sergio to watch the entire Saw franchise pretty much back to back, I owe him a debt of gratitude that I am slowly paying back by watching a couple thousand movies of his choice. So expect the unexpected, dear readers. In between Census Bloodbath reviews and the upcoming [REC] retrospective (my RECrospective, if you will) leading up (or, more likely - following) the release of the fourth and final installment, don't be surprised if some very idiosyncratic pieces begin to show up here and there.

Assuming Sergio doesn't just elect to make me watch House of Cards until I pass out in a flush of sexy political exhaustion. Anyway, this is all just a pointlessly long way to introduce today's topic, a refugee from 2014, the year that was: The Skeleton Twins.

And no, this is not a spinoff of The Simple Life.

The Skeleton Twins is about two estranged siblings who are reunited after a pair of failed suicide attempts. Milo (Bill Hader) comes to live with Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and her uncannily perfect husband Lance (Luke Wilson) in New York state after a failed attempt at making an actor of himself in Los Angeles. While Milo attempts to find his place and reunite with Rich (Ty Burrell), the schoolteacher he had an affair with as a teen, Maggie struggles to overcome her dissatisfaction with what by all accounts should be a perfect marriage and gamely attempts to swallow her attraction for her fine-as-hell Australian scuba teacher (Boyd Holbrook).

Literally his only flaw is that the actor playing him is American, which means he's a liar.

Despite a string of serious indie-type scenarios, The Skeleton Twins is more comedy than drama, though Wiig and Hader are more than up for the task - he filled with bitter verve and sarcastic bite, she slathered in a heaping helping of wan ennui. Second time director Craig Johnson, however, is a little too wet behind the ears to keep the two slippery genres firmly in his grasp. The bigger comic moments and weepy dramatic crescendos appear in too-quick succession and crash into one another like a pilot's Newton ball toy during turbulence. They sometimes work together in harmony, but mostly ping off of each other and clatter wildly in all directions.

The film's tone is low-key enough in its ambitions that this effect is less disastrous than it could be in a more flamboyantly soapy picture (like, say, Blue Jasmine or any film with Meryl Streep on its casting shortlist), but it doesn't lead to a sense of overall cohesion. It's not film-killing, but it certainly makes it more of a challenge to pay rapt attention.

Although the Drag Halloween scene does its best to keep spirits high. Also - don't you think he looks a little bit like Elsa Mars in Freak Show?

The film's biggest strength is the chemistry of its two leads. No matter how hard the warring tones might try and smash together, Hader and Wiig form a strong caramel center for their unostentatious surroundings. Every peak the film reaches is due solely to their dedicated work, striking comedy gold when they're allowed to let their hair down and stray from the self-important faux-indiecool dialogue (because, honestly, does the whole "it's kind of my thing to screw up" self-sabotage thing appeal to anyone outside of teenagers in the late 90's?).

The Skeleton Twins, to be fair, has its share of genuinely funny moments, including a Jefferson Starship sing-along, a delicious dinner table scene with their negligent mother, and surprise cameo-that-I-can't-call-a-cameo-because-she's-not-famous-but-I-like-her-so-screw-it from Kathleen Rose Perkins (who is notable for being a welcome ray of light in the massively unenjoyable timesuck known as the BBC-Showtime co-production Episodes). And let's make it clear that no part of the film is a chore to watch, not even the most structurally inept missteps. 

It's just that, as a whole, The Skeleton Twins is like a Listerine strip. It's a little tricky to get ahold of at first, it has a moment of strength, and it dissolves from the tongue so quickly you almost forget it was ever there.

Although I would get married to Luke Wilson in a bulky sweater any day, so maybe I'm just not on this film's wavelength.

But credit where credit is due. Director/co-writer Craig Johnson's strange fixation on fish throughout the film both begins as a quick-and-dirty symbol for shifting character relationships and matures into a deeper rumination on the film's theme as it goes along. The sheer presence of fish throughout the narrative sparks active audience participation and brings to mind the so-called fishbowl effect, in which everything looks normal from an outside vantage point (like peering into a fishbowl), but appears strange and twisted from the inside.

This is the perfect metaphorical bookend for The Skeleton Twins, which is all about the absurdity and hypocrisy present in the trappings of a "typical" happy life (ie. great husband, great job, plans to add a baby to the whole arrangement...) and how people frequently pretend to be OK when a firestorm of emotion is whirling around inside. This is present in every character and every subplot and is by far the most commendable cinematic element in a film that, for better or for worse, plants its flag in its actors rather than its aesthetics.

All in all, The Skeleton Twins is a decent way to laze away a dull afternoon, especially if you've been missing Kristen Wiig or Bill Hader now that they've told SNL that they were going to the corner store for cigarettes and never returned. It won't stick around in your mind, but not every film has to. It might have its flaws, but it's a low-key good time for the suitably emotionally bereft.

TL;DR: The Skeleton Twins is a decent, low-key comedy that lives and dies on the chemistry of its central performers.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1004

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