Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Craig Johnson.
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson.
Runtime: 93 minutes.
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell.
Trailer: “Will you go to the prom with me?”
Plot: Fraternal twins Maggie and Milo have been estranged for ten years, and reunite after a suicide attempt. Reunited in their despair at where their lives have ended up, they attempt to recapture a point where they were happy and rebuild from there. Milo attempts to reconnect with a mysterious older man from his past, while Maggie attempts to find satisfaction in scuba lessons and a meaningless affair. All of this, including Maggie’s domestic bliss with husband Lance, is quick to fall apart.
Review: No new territory is uncovered in Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, and no new experiences are explored. That’s a critical failing if what you are aiming at is a darling indie film with limited distribution and an unusual, quirky appeal; that The Skeleton Twinswas entered into the Sundance Film Festival and won best screenplay is an indication that it has these aspirations (best screenplay also being code for funny, moving in parts but uneven as a whole). Taken on the terms of its direction, script, and subject matter alone the film is sorely lacking in originality and weight – finding yet more low-energy, melodramatic moments in the usual stuff of the forty-something life. If these were the only scales by which to judge the film, then it would be one that is best missed.
But the film is saved, miraculously saved, by the performances of its ensemble cast and the subtle way in which they perform the script’s comic beats. It is a lesson in how excellent performances can give comic momentum to even the most pedestrian of productions; you won’t walk away with a meaningful thought at the close of the film, but you will have laughed throughout. On those modest scales, the film is a success.
Failed actor Milo (an outstanding Bill Hader) attempts suicide and ends up in hospital, visited by his estranged sister Maggie (an outstanding Kristen Wiig). Initially at a loss for what to say to each other, Milo’s black wit breaks the ice with a series of long form jokes that audiences will already have seen in the trailer to the film. But Maggie, too, gives as good as she gets and soon the bond between the two is restored – a bond formed by the tragic death of their father, and their forbearance of their self absorbed mother, many years ago. It is about the only thing that keeps them afloat throughout the length of the film, as Maggie lies to her husband (an outstanding Luke Wilson) about wanting to have children, while listlessly falling into an affair with her scuba instructor; and Milo attempts to reunite with a figure from his past (an outstanding Ty Burrell), in order to resume a connection that was cut off by an unspecified event in the path. The stakes are high – death and the dissolution of a life are involved – but the investment in the characters is slight, leading to a rather uneven film. No matter, as the wildly perverse jokes land. On discussing children, Milo remarks ‘I love kids – except fat kids. Fuck those little turds.’ Maggie clarifies ‘he’s joking,’ while her credulous husband remarks ‘oh, wow, cause I was thinking “what’s with this guy, why doesn’t he like fat kids?” I was a fat kid.’ I’m betting that fell a little flat for you on the page; but the delivery and interaction of these characters is everything, elevating what is otherwise a colourless and straining script into the realm of effortless banter, and no-consequences humour.
The timing for The Skeleton Twins is not the best, as it occupies indie ground somewhere between the recently released About Alex and Zack Braff’s similar tale of Gen X despair in Wish I Was Here, also in cinemas now. It’s also a film that is done no favours by the trailer, which collects together the best moments but strips them of their context and the rhythm the actors manage to build up within their interactions. Yet that’s where the meat of the film lies, and where audiences will gain the most enjoyment. It’s hard to recommendThe Skeleton Twins to cinema goers, but equally I can’t see the experience improving when it’s translated to a home entertainment context. The film does require a bit of focus and audience investment that the cinema brings to make it work, and it does modestly reward that investment. If the regular blockbuster fare has worn you out, and there is nothing else critically acclaimed to capture attention, then The Skeleton Twins is a good choice for a palate cleanser.
Rating: Three stars.