Mark Reviews Movies

The Skeleton Twins


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Craig Johnson

Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason

MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexuality and drug use)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 9/12/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 12, 2014

The Skeleton Twins opens with a man attempting suicide and his sister seriously contemplating it. In fact, a phone call from the hospital where the brother is admitted stops the sister from swallowing a handful of pills at the last moment. Is this scenario a matter of pure coincidence, genetic connection, or cosmic irony? The movie does not make a case for any of them because it wants all of them to be true. It's a movie that believes it is saying everything by saying nothing of much importance.

This is a movie that covers topics such as depression, suicide, infidelity, the scars of the sudden loss of a parent, dealing with the psychological repercussions of being molested as a child, unfulfilled dreams, unmaintained familial relationships, and so on. It is front-loaded with Issues but does not have the courage to really explore them. Like the characters, the movie keeps these struggles, traumas, and crises at an arm's length. They're treated as quirky accessories for these characters, no different than the toy skeletons their father dangles in front of them when they were children or the gender-swapping Halloween costumes they wear in one sequence.

For a while, this treatment of serious troubles seems like an appropriate one, given how incapable the characters are of understanding—let alone confronting—them. There's a level of stasis to the lives of Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig), who have become almost completely debilitated by the onslaught of internal and external forces against them. It makes sense that we should see these problems as accessories—if one can consider a series of anchors attached to people and weighing them down as accessories. The siblings go through the motions of lives that are almost constantly interrupted by some reminder of how bad things were and how unbearable they have become.

Milo has been living in Los Angeles, attempting to make a career in acting but finding himself without an agent and waiting tables. His boyfriend recently dumped him, leaving him to address his suicide note "To whom it may concern." Maggie lives in New York and is married to Lance (Luke Wilson), a perpetually nice guy with dreams of becoming a father. She has been hiding and taking birth control.

When Maggie arrives at the hospital to bring her brother back home, they have not seen or spoken to each other in 10 years. The mistrust and bad feelings start up almost immediately. Milo is suspicious of his sister's seemingly ordinary, boring life, and he is right to be. In addition to hiding birth control, Maggie has been enrolling in various classes for assorted hobbies, most recently a scuba diving class for her upcoming, belated honeymoon to Hawaii with Lance. Each of these classes has led to an affair.

Maggie quickly becomes impatient with and annoyed by Milo's negative attitude and flippant outlook on life. He mocks her home, her husband, and her job while failing to take any steps to improve his own life. Unbeknownst to Maggie, Milo is also meeting and eventually starts a sexual relationship with Rich (Ty Burrell), who was his high school English teacher (His character has the most depth; considering what we learn about him, though, that just adds to the discomfort factor).

Add to all of this turmoil and these conflicts a father who committed suicide when the siblings were children, a selfish and New Age-embracing mother (Joanna Gleason) who only visits them because it's on the way to a seminar, and two additional scenes of possible or real suicide attempts, and the amount of inner and outer chaos becomes overwhelming. Through it all, Milo and Maggie remain statically apathetic, save for a couple of scenes of frivolity (The two get high on nitrous oxide at the dental office where Maggie works and joke around for a few minutes, and they lip-sync a 1980s pop-rock song) and distressing anger (After lots of passive-aggressiveness between the two, Maggie throws an especially nasty comeback at Milo late in the movie that feels forced).

The material grows increasingly repetitive. Hader and Wiig are up to the task of their characters' stone-faced ennui, although, other than the aforementioned examples and a tender but short-lived moment in which a dance becomes a loving embrace, that's really the only duty the screenplay by Mark Heyman and director Craig Johnson has in store for them. Like the husband and the mother, they are broad caricatures; they simply have a few more broad beats than the rest.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe Johnson is suggesting that Milo and Maggie are only representations of the movie's most repeated image: a pair of skeleton toys with their strings in the grasp of and manipulated by the figure of their skeleton-masked father. If that's the case, it's a fine metaphor for what happens here. It seems unlikely that The Skeleton Twins is aiming for something so simplistic, considering how much suffering it packs into the story, but simplistic is what it is.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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