Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Boyd Holbrook, Ty Burrell, Luke Wilson, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Joanna Gleason
Written by: Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson
Directed by: Craig Johnson
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and drug use
Running Time: 93
Date: 09/12/2014

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Funny Bones

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I love comedians. Conventional wisdom has always been against this idea, but I think comedians are generally better actors than dramatic ones. Comedy is much harder, and requires something personal. A dramatic actor can hide behind costumes or accents and disappear into a role, but a comedian is always on display, always risking something. But because the result, laughter, is a physical response rather than a mental one, tastemakers automatically assume that it's a lower, and lesser, response.

So it's a great treat for me when the most talented of comedians gets the call to step up and do something extraordinary, to make a movie that is funny, but also takes a moment to wonder about the world. I guess you could call them "dramedies" or something, but only a few really get to a special place, a place of open searching and yearning, while still remaining funny. Robin Williams did it in Good Morning, Vietnam and The Fisher King. Adam Sandler did it in Punch-Drunk Love. Bill Murray did it in Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and a few other films. And Jim Carrey did it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (This is to say nothing of Charlie Chaplin in City Lights or Woody Allen in Manhattan.)

This is all a way of introducing a special new movie called The Skeleton Twins. It's the second feature by Craig Johnson, and it's just about note-perfect. It stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, both veterans of "Saturday Night Live." They are credited with several films together already, though some of them involved voice work, and even onscreen they rarely actually appeared at the same time. They played a hilariously ridiculous husband and wife in the wonderful Adventureland (2009), and now they are brother and sister, the twins of the title. (That may be a good trivia question: name two actors who played husband and wife as well as twins.)

As The Skeleton Twins opens, it's clear that this is not the typical "SNL" movie. Maggie (Wiig) stands at her sink and contemplates taking a handful of pills. Before she can go through with it, her phone rings. Her gay brother Milo (Hader), whom she has not seen in some years, has also attempted to kill himself and is now in the hospital. She goes to visit, and they have a very funny, touching reunion in "twin" shorthand, but not without death as a keyword in the discussion.

It's decided that Milo will recuperate while staying with Maggie and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson), a cheerful and well-meaning doofus who doesn't quite seem on Maggie's wavelength. He's excited about having a baby with her, but she is having second thoughts, and even has sex with her scuba instructor. Wilson, by the way, is given a well-rounded character to play, and is not just a standard cuckold easily shunted aside.

Maggie and Milo have several showcase scenes in which they bond once again, inhaling nitrous oxide and acting silly at the dentist's office where Maggie works, doing a well-rehearsed lip-sync to that 1980s cheese anthem "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" by Starship (originally recorded for the movie Mannequin, but now effectively stolen by The Skeleton Twins), and dressing up for a Halloween night out. But they also tear down each other's defenses, and see through their respective sorrow and longing. As for Milo, he can't help going back and seeing Rich (Ty Burrell), a teacher who seduced Milo when he was a teen; Milo developed real feelings for the older man that haven't entirely gone away.

Director Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Heyman (Black Swan), has a knack for softening cliches and making things seem more like life. For one thing, I'm pretty sure no one ever mentions out loud that Maggie and Milo are twins, which is as it should be. Everyone around them already knows they're twins, and there's no need to say it. Johnson's choice of cinematography -- by Reed Morano (Kill Your Darlings) -- is soft and muted, a bit on the chilly side, which is just the opposite of the bright, even clear look of most other comedies. And the movie's use of a musical score is surprisingly spare, whereas this kind of "dramedy" usually drenches itself in goopy, heartstring-plucking music.

Characters are given their own inner struggles, with each character trying to do what's right, but often unsure of which way to go. Even simple things are handled gracefully. I was struck by the scene in which Maggie discovers Milo's reconnection with Rich. At Halloween, they're drinking and dancing in a bar. Milo goes to the bathroom and leaves his phone on the table. Maggie picks it up and starts looking at pictures, which makes perfect sense. It's something she might actually do. But then the phone rings, and Rich's name pops up on the screen. And that's that: simple, real, and visual.

Not to mention that the movie's precision rhythm and timing, finishing up at 93 minutes without becoming bloated or maudlin. The title, by the way, is a reference to Maggie and Milo's father, and gifts that he gave them when they were kids. It's also another way to reference death, which is so prominent here, around every corner, even in the dead tree branches that Milo helps Lance pick up from the ground. Water is also a major theme (not unlike in Tarkovsky's films), a giver of life, but also a taker. (Milo and Maggie's attempted suicides both involve water.) Yet, by examining death, Johnson's film finds its way back to life.

The biggest selling point here are the performances by Hader and Wiig. We can start by comparing them to Adventureland, a film I love no less than The Skeleton Twins, though it's clear that their purpose in that film is to be as broad and cartoony as possible, to get laughs and not to intrude on the movie's true center. Now they are at the center, and it's astonishing to see them open up, occasionally using humor to attack or defend, but frequently dropping the armor to show need and doubt and loss. Hader will probably get more attention than Wiig, since he has affected so many flawless gay mannerisms in his performance (he wears a fancy selection of bracelets to cover up his wrist wounds), while Wiig is more "just playing herself" (a lazy, often-used phrase that I hate). Both performances, however, are equally accomplished, brave, funny, and without a false note. I rode this emotional wave every step of the way, crashing and finding catharsis at the end.

If The Skeleton Twins has a flaw, it's that it premiered at Sundance, where it will seem to some like a fairly "typical" Sundance movie, though I would beg to differ. This is one of the year's best movies, and a movie that deserves Oscar consideration, even though this is exactly the kind of movie that's ignored by the Oscars. Never mind them. Those of us who see it and love it will have it all to ourselves.

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