A dark comedy that is beautiful, surprising and movingMovie Review Thursday, September 18th, 2014
The Skeleton Twins
The best thing about getting past Labor Day is not, contrary to popular thought, the arrival of pumpkin spiced lattes at Starbucks, but rather the wide release of good movies to theaters. Of course, good movies do show up in the first nine months of the year, but movies like Boyhood, Locke, and Under Her Skin get lost in the deluge of X-Men, animated apes, tear-jerking teen romances that dominate the spring and summer. Fall is for movies hoping for award recognition at the end of the year, and while that means we get Oscar chumming schlock like August: Osage County and Lone Survivor, we also get serious, adult films like Her and 12 Years a Slave.It’s hard to know which will be which this year, but I’m betting that this year’s Sundance favorite that ends up with a bunch of awards for best screenplay will be The Skeleton Twins, a dark comedy about two siblings haunted by their father’s suicide and their own failure to love the right person.
The film opens with Milo (Bill Hader) drunkenly attempting to commit suicide with a razor and a bathtub and his sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig), with whom he had not spoken in 10 years, getting the call from the hospital just before she is to take a handful of pills. Milo is embarrassed when he wakes to see Maggie, but after awkward banter and a slight thawing, he agrees to leave Los Angeles and come stay with her and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) in Maggie and Milo’s hometown in upstate New York.
Milo, a waiter and failed actor, is arch, sarcastic and gay, and he finds Maggie and Lance’s cutesy, weirdly earnest marriage eye-rollingly ridiculous. Maggie, an awkward dental hygienist who suffers her sadness in silence, is secretly taking birth control pills while Lance thinks they’re trying to get pregnant. She also takes classes – scuba, salsa, cooking – to meet other men, to, it seems, feel something strong and wrong. While Maggie tries to keep it all together, Milo starts working for Lance clearing brush – daintily, with a jaunty scarf – and visiting an old boyfriend (Ty Burrell), who is both very displeased and a little bit pleased to see Milo.
The action is split between Milo and Maggie’s messy searches for love and fulfilment and their haphazard reconciliation. They have hilarious bonding sessions (one of which includes the best use of a Starship song in four decades) and horrible fights, they reveal and resurface secrets and wounds, and they fumble toward epiphanies. Hader and Wiig have known and worked with each other for years (both were key players on Saturday Night Live), and their comic and emotional chemistry are clear. They are believable siblings in their knowing, easy interactions and the palpable love they feel for each other, even when its clouded by depression, anger and history. It is not remotely an exaggeration to say that The Skeleton Twins is both Wiig and Hader’s best performance. Burrell, going serious as conflicted close-case, and Wilson, as the naively cheerful cuckold, are also excellent.
The acting is splendid, but Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman’s screenplay is the real star of the film. Making a winning film about depression, suicide, self-destruction and unforgivable mistakes is certainly not easy, and usually those movies are maudlin exercises in Tennessee Williams near-parody (see: August: Osage County). But Johnson and Heyman balance the humor and pathos perfectly, Wiig and Hader the lines and the scenes to create something beautiful, surprising and moving.
Dennis Lehane, who wrote novels that became the films Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island, wrote the screenplay for The Drop, based on his short story Animal Rescue. The Drop is solid genre work – stoic hero, vulnerable moll, articulate mobsters and thugs out for their last score – but Lehane, per usual, gives his characters carefully shaded three-dimensions and delicious dialogue. And Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam lets the characters carry the story instead of using familiar noir stylistics to define the mood. Tom Hardy is Bob, a slow-talking, seemingly sweet bartender, who finds an abandoned pit-bull and nurses him back to health with Nadia, a wary woman with a past (Noomi Rapace). Bob works for Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in his last role), who has made a series of terrible deals with Chechen thugs, including letting his bar serve as an occasional drop site for the night’s ill-gotten gains. Enter Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nadia’ ex, the dog’s original owner, and a braggart murderer. He is off his rocker and out to get Bob, among other things. As the four head to a collision, secrets are revealed and people are murdered. Gandolfini is doing a hard-luck version of Tony Soprano, but he does it wonderfully, especially with Lehane’s darkly hilarious lines. But the juicy center of the film is Hardy’s sexy, sweet and slightly creepy performance as Bob. It alone is reason to see The Drop.
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