Monday, November 17, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

THE SKELETON TWINS        C+            
USA  (93 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Craig Johnson            Official site

One of the more acclaimed films to come out of Sundance, winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, yet despite the darkness of the subject matter, suicide turned into a morbid comedy, the film is surprisingly conventional.  While this was an opportunity to create something uniquely original, instead it’s more than slightly contrived, filled with movie cliché’s and a truly terrible musical soundtrack that just screams of indie light with a peppy beat, feeling nearly identical to the musical track used in Jason Reitman’s UP IN THE AIR (2009), in both cases used to add a surge of folksy energy to an otherwise downbeat subject, but the music couldn’t feel more generic.  Certainly that’s part of the problem, but the story itself also has a condescending air about it in the derisive and mocking style of humor used, where everybody else is fair game to be made fun of, calling kids of today “little shits,” while in the same breath making a film about two bratty grown up children who both feel unloved and unlovable, where many of the viewers will sympathize, even as these shortsighted characters don’t really give a damn about anybody else.  Much like Bud Cort’s stream of comic suicide attempts in HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) or Lone Scherfig’s offbeat WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF (2002), there’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy, where the better films err on the side of tragedy, while the more mainstream films err on the side of comedy, which is the case here, as the comedic aspects are delightfully entertaining, though resembling the absurdist tone of comic sketches, while the more tragic, downbeat moments never really work, likely due to the fact that the lives of the two lead characters feel more like fragments and are never truly explored.  The viewer only sees what the writer wants them to see, where there isn’t an underlying reservoir of hidden, untapped emotions, which is the essential component on display throughout the nearly three-hour The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014). 

Bought up at Sundance and distributed by the Duplass brothers, the story concerns a twin brother and sister, Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig, though originally the part was conceived with Ana Faris in mind), both alums from the Saturday Night Live (1975 – present) television series and both the product of a dysfunctional family.  While a series of flashbacks briefly explores their childhood, it’s used more for symbolic connections than to provide any real insight, as the focus remains thoroughly targeted on the present, where both are miserably unhappy, and as twins seem to be on the same psychic wavelength, as both are seen at the outset on the verge of committing suicide at exactly the same moment, though they haven’t seen one another in ten years.  Maggie is stopped from taking a handful of pills by an interrupting phone call from an emergency room announcing her brother survived his failed attempt of cutting his wrists in the bathtub.  Flying out ot LA to offer her support, Milo grumbles a spew of sarcastic venom at her and tells her to go away, but she refuses to listen and instead invites him to her small New York hometown where she lives with her husband Lance (Luke Wilson), giving her an opportunity to look after him.  Having no better offers, of course he accepts, but immediately he’s the odd man out, as Lance is a testosterone positive alpha male who is hyper positive about everything, where he acts like he’s perpetually stoned on Zoloft.  Milo, on the other hand, is a sullen, deeply depressive gay man who hides his emotions in self-deprecating sarcasm that is too dark for most people to figure out, leaving him perpetually isolated and alone.  Maggie seems like she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, but feigns happiness, matching the mood of her constantly upbeat husband, thankful that she’s not living with the pathetic losers that describe her earlier life.  Milo, of course, sees through this in a second, but remains totally out of place, as evidenced by his total frustration at going to a gay bar where he keeps waiting for the men to show up, only to learn it’s “dyke night.” 

While Milo is a head case, wearing his troubles on his sleeve, where an even darker side is hinted at, the audience accepts his psychic turmoil, aggravated further by a contentious relationship with a former English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell), who is nearby that has trouble written all over it.  Meanwhile, Maggie remains cheerful enough, but that smile is quickly wiped off her face when she’s forced to admit some hard truths to her brother, both high on nitrous oxide at the time, so she couldn’t lie her way out of it as she was attempting to do with her husband, where her façade of happiness reveals as much interior dysfunction as Milo, but she’s better at covering it up.  His presence seems to bring out her most protected secrets, which becomes something of a combustible problem that could easily blow up in her face.  It turns out these secrets are doorways to miserable childhoods and unending emotional pain that have been with them their entire lives, which they’ve both on their own unsuccessfully tried to avoid dealing with.  Neither has any social life to speak of, where their lives are a wreck, so being together has a strange way of releasing pent up memories, allowing them to share experiences that only they know about, which is entirely believable, as it’s clear the two of them have a chemistry from working together.  Painful to watch at times, the film attempts to provide a comic perspective on such assorted themes of suicide, the aftereffects of parental suicide, adultery, serial lying, dysfunctional parenting, sexual abuse of a minor, depression, drug use, and even animal cruelty, where it’s kind of a combination plate of social ills.  When their mother (Joanna Gleason) arrives on the scene, what follows is a descent into ever more disturbing territory.  At one of the bleakest points of despair, Milo breaks out into what appears to be a song and dance routine they performed together as kids, lip-synching to Jefferson Starship’s synth-heavy song for the 80’s, Starship - Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now - YouTube (4:32), which couldn’t be more corny, but it’s the moment that seals the deal, as if they have nothing else, they have each other.  While we’ve seen and heard all this before, there are some affecting moments, but overall the film never digs deep enough to actually matter, where the ideas and the performances are eventually lost to the mediocre execution. 

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