Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Soul Mates: The Skeleton Twins

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins

In director Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play twins who’ve grown apart as adults after life’s taken them in different directions. But after a suicide attempt at the film’s outset lands Milo (Hader) in a L.A. hospital, the pair find themselves under the same roof again. Maggie (Wiig) insists that he recuperate with her back at their childhood hometown in upstate New York. She’s returned there upon marrying, and the movie charts the ways in which our place and family origin serve as both a haven from the wider world’s chaos and the ongoing cause of a different, deeper turbulence. Casting Hader and Wiig—two crack comedians—proves a stroke of genius. After seeing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I knew Wiig could make a comic-dramatic turn. But I had no idea she was capable of the range of expression she displays here, nor the kind of psychological character study she puts on. Even more so with Hader, who has the more complex role and riskier scenes. And with Johnson and Mark Heyman’s first-rate script at their disposal, the pair is by turns hilarious and affecting. The Skeleton Twins is a funny, poignant, deeply touching look at the complicated way our siblings can become our best friends in adulthood—those who uniquely understand our pain and help us sort through the mess we make of life.

We begin in the middle of that mess, as both characters simultaneously try to off themselves on opposite sides of the country. Depressed over an ex-boyfriend, Milo slices his wrists. Meanwhile, Maggie stares forlornly into a bathroom mirror, a bottle of pills in hand, when a phone call about her brother interrupts her plan. The film immediately establishes the psychic connection unique to twins, one that’s grown dim for these two. They haven’t spoken in ten years, we learn, after having been the closest of playmates (we glean this from periodic flashbacks to surrealist scenes of their childhood). No caustic falling-out precipitated this estrangement, we gather. Rather, it arose gradually, stemming from differing attempts to escape their family. Milo’s made his way to L.A. to pursue acting, the city providing distraction and anonymity. Maggie’s chosen another route, wedding Lance (a pitch-perfect Luke Wilson), a man whose bouncy optimism counter-acts her melancholic tendencies. Neither option works. Maggie’s come to find Lance’s personality grating. He’s sporty, frisky, brimming with catch-phrase philosophy. “Like a big Labrador retriever,” Milo teases his sister, unable to process her choice in spouse. Meantime, the coping mechanism she adopts in her unhappiness—serial affairs—only compounds her situation.

Milo, for his part, now has to endure the mortification that arises when you slink back in failure to your hometown, where the embarrassing labels we accrue as teenagers—and our familial-determined identity—live forever in the eyes of those who knew us. And he can’t believe his sister’s seemingly bought into this conventional lifestyle. “Jesus, Maggie!” he mutters under his breath when he sees a framed photo of her and Lance duck hunting. I think Hader gives one of the best male performances of the year. He completely convinces you he’s gay, with Milo’s prissiness, sensitivity, and dry sardonic wit wrapped tightly into his body and voice. (Check out what he does when Milo stumbles into a flock of geese.) He’s also drowning in self-pity, and having to walk the streets of this cloudy, grey town and live under his brother-in-law’s roof isn’t helping matters. When Lance brashly suggests that Milo come to work with him (he does maintenance for the town’s public works) and that the two of them get some male bonding in, Milo replies in horror: “I think your idea and my idea of ‘guys’ night’ are very different.”

He’s got good reason to dread being home—it’s the source of his and Maggie’s unhappiness, we increasingly learn. To her shock, he invites their mother (Joanna Gleason) over one night. It’s a terrible idea. Mom’s the major source of the family’s dysfunction, and while time’s dulled Milo’s memory of her narcissism, her arrival gives him a cold reminder. Self-absorbed beyond belief, spouting that ego-stroking New Age spirituality bunk, Judy’s blithe disregard for her children stuns you. She missed Maggie’s wedding, we come to learn, and is visiting now only because she was attending a guru session in the area. When Maggie calls her out on her bullshit, she pleads innocence, saying her crown chakra had opened or some such inanity. “I’m sending you the light,” she blows to them as she departs—Gleason shines in this, her one scene. Through her, the movie captures the damaging effects of elders, which can haunt us for years, and how we often succumb to the temptation that time changes them.

Kristen Wiig  and Luke Wilson in The Skeleton Twins
Milo can’t help but give into it, it seems. While perusing through a book store, he spots Rich, his English teacher in high school, we come to learn—and former lover. Their relationship cost Rich his job, sparked embarrassing legal proceedings, and enraged Milo's family. But his sense of self's sunk so low he tries to revive things with Rich, lying that he's made it as an actor in Hollywood. Ty Burrell's perfectly cast here, embodying a man whose fastidious, well-groomed exterior belies a nasty loathing of himself and his tortured desires. Rich leads a double life, keeping a girlfriend and sixteen-year old son in the most comfortable of homes, trying to bury his past and sexuality. He and Milo smoke pot in his car one night, swapping anxieties. I can remember few more vulnerable moments onscreen, gay or straight, than when Milo propositions Rich. He says that he feels like he's a freshmen asking a senior to prom, and Hader exudes that very high school shyness. Both Milo and Maggie are in a kind of arrested development, falling back into younger versions of themselves as they languish in the grey area that is “emerging adulthood.” But at least they're working through their issues—Rich refuses to address his. We see how his attraction to Milo really is a kind of predation, an older man with failed ambitions turning the relationship with his promising protege into sexual patronage out of both admiration and jealousy.

Milo's great fear, in fact, is precisely that his best days are over. After Rich later rebuffs him, he gets hammered and unloads on his sister. He tells her of a moment in high school when his father told him not to worry about not being like of the cool kid with everything going for him. That boy's peaking now, Dad said reassuringly. His glory days will soon pass him by; he'll be pumping gas in this town long after you—the impressionable, precocious, self-conscious kid—will go on to bigger and better successes. I remember my father giving me the exact same talk one night after a particularly disappointing school dance. There's just one problem—it's not true. With a pitiable smile, Milo recounts how he looked up that old classmate on Facebook. The man's an electrician, he reports, with a pretty wife and two cute children. “And he's happy,” Hader chokes, his voice breaking as he realizes a terrifying reality: He peaked in high school. Never have I seen the disappointments of young adulthood aired with such accuracy and brutal honesty. Johnson and Heyman have a literary sensibility—I was sure it derived from a novel for much of the film.

For all her advice to Milo—and chagrin that he's reconnected with Rich—Maggie can't straighten out her own life. She's a woman in conflict with herself. Though she's determined to stay true to Lance, her body betrays her. Wiig is a delight to watch; she makes Maggie's frustration over her own powerlessness clear while also seeding in the humanity to make it forgivable. And the humor. When she determinedly tells her scuba instructor she's fucking that they're done, he straightens his lean frame right up against her. “Shit,” Wiig says, like a deer in the headlights. Her comic scenes with Hader are absolutely hilarious, with an improvised feel that comes from their days on Saturday Night Live. The twins get high on anaesthesia at the dentist office where Maggie works as hygienist, and the results are infectious. Sliding down to the floor beneath a filing cabinet, they giggle secrets to each other like they're in one of those pillow forts you build as kids. Milo confesses that he once went down a girl. “I was at sea,” he relates. “A wet, stormy, pungent sea.” Maggie admits that she's trying to avoid pregnancy, despite what she's told Lance. Between the two of them, Hader and Wiig get at how hanging with our siblings can disarm us and restores us to goofy kidom, no matter what our age.

But it can also dredge up the fights and squabbles we have with them, which inevitably happens with the pair. They bicker several times and have one blow out argument, during which they say the kind of brutally honest statements that both need to be said and go too far. Maggie offers a sad reply to Milo as he painfully sums up his life, full of exasperation with him and masking her own disappointment. “Most of us are just walking around trying not to be depressed about how our lives turned out,” she sighs. Milo innocently tells her she would be an over-protective mom, incurring her indignation. (“I was only referring to your fear of morbid obesity!” he jokingly tries to explain.) Later, he cuts more deeply: “Well, maybe I should just fuck my problems away.” In a lesser actor's hands, this line could blow out into melodramatic bombast, but Hader takes it down, so that it stings more deeply. Neither he nor Wiig have a false moment. The movie hardly does, faltering only once when Maggie beholds a mother and young son bickering in a restaurant. It's meant to reaffirm the horror at the idea of having kids with Lance, but comes off contrived. As does the ending—you see what Johnson's going for, but can't find a climax that's serious without being too dark, redemptive without being implausible.

Nothing else is amiss in the film, though, with its autumn earth tones lulling us into the characters' nostalgic, sad season of life. Like the leaves falling and blowing away into the Hudson, so Maggie and Milo are being swept and cleared out, parts of them dying softly, painfully, so that something new may grow. “Don't fight,” sings Donnie Emerson at the end credits, a song that the two would have heard as kids in the late '70s and early '80s. They heed that advice more often than not. On Halloween they put on costumes like old times, she cross-dressing him as they used to, her cowgirl outfit serving as the perfect sign of their gender swapping roles. Then they wander into a cemetery with the wide-eyed awe of children, the images glowing like colored bulbs inside jack-o'-lanterns, the scene reminiscent of Spielberg's E.T. I recall the same scene in my hometown growing up, on that magical night when kids paraded in the dusk and you sensed all kinds of spirits in the wind. At a bar later, Maggie and Milo share a dance, a beautiful, soft image that captures the feeling you have at times for your brother or sister—that this is the best friend you've got, and that with him or her at your side, you're not afraid. “Nothing's gonna stop us now,” the pair hilariously lip sync at one point to another '80s pop tune (this one from Jefferson Starship). That's not necessarily true, The Skeleton Twins says to us. It takes a real look at mid-life in ordinary America, after all. But when family's done right, it gives us the feeling that it is.

 Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain.

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