October 16, 2014

Hader and Wiig: A Match Made in Studio 8H

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As far as grim opening scenes for a movie I thought was advertised as a comedy go, it doesn’t get much grimmer than The Skeleton Twins. The film’s first shots of Milo (Bill Hader) show him penning an impressively impersonal suicide note (there’s a sad face emoji) and cutting his wrists in a claw-foot bathtub. On the other side of the country (Upstate New York!), his twin sister, Maggie (Kristen Wiig), is about to swallow a fistful of pills when she receives a phone call from a hospital in Los Angeles, informing her that her brother has just attempted suicide. The twins haven’t spoken in 10 years.

The rest of the film follows the pair’s relationship as Milo moves to New York to live with Maggie and her well-meaning but emotionally-stunted husband Lance (Luke Wilson) in the town that the siblings grew up in. While the rest of the plot follows fairly well-tread ground for family dramas — someone having an affair, a hippie flake of a mother, old scores that get settled decades after the fact — it’s the details, in the acting and in the writing, that make this movie a knock-out.

Hader and Wiig are a perfect team, at least partially due to the seven years that they spent as the heaviest-hitters on the occasionally relevant, sometimes funny, but constant star-producing factory of Saturday Night Live. It is thanks to their easy chemistry that a scene  in which the pair get high on laughing gas in Maggie’s office (she’s a dental hygienist) feels like some of the best improv, rather than a trite joke about adults doing drugs in inappropriate places. Craig Johnson’s screenplay indulges in tropes that it could not have pulled off engagingly with any other pair of actors — including a quality-time-bonding-love-fest which occurs while lip-syncing to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” which is only non-stupid because of Wiig’s effervescent propensity for physical comedy under any circumstance. Similarly, the “put on something beautiful, we’re going out,” montage is only fun because of Hader’s total ease in full drag and his remarkable ability to create a character that is not only depressed and neurotic in the dime-a-dozen fashion that independent dramas have become known for, but also overflowing with humanity, highs-and-lows, the multiple personalities that are the reality of all genuinely interesting people.

The tone of the film is much more somber than the trailers let on — presumably because you sell more tickets when you sell “funny guys” Bill and Kristen, rather than “brand-new dramatic” actors Hader and Wiig. Citing Saturday Night Live as your acting whelping pen, however, says more than just “I have an understanding of comedic timing and the elasticity of my own facial muscles” — it’s also some damn fine training in generating original characters and acting them convincingly with little provided backstory or time to explore. And Hader and Wiig did their time as character actors in the films of bigger stars.

Ty Burrell plays, I suppose, the film’s biggest antagonist, which is unfortunate because the character is a one-dimensional trope of closeted sexuality and projected emotional abuse. Not only is the character pivotal to Milo and Maggie’s central conflict, but Burrell is a better actor than what this script lets him do. The same goes for Luke Wilson as Maggie’s lunkish husband — every scene he’s in serves the direct purpose of exposing Maggie’s dysfunction or deception and he’s never given a beat to develop in his own right.

The most rewarding thing about seeing The Skeleton Twins (sometime before it ends its current run at Cinemapolis!) is noting the evolution of the romantic comedy’s divergence from it’s heteronormative and strictly-defined-terms-of-romance origins. As I’ve cited before, Dana Stevens for Slate noted about The Skeleton Twins that its “structure and rhythms … often gesture at the conventions (and some of the clichés) of romantic comedy” and that “the arc of two people who start out at odds and eventually come to recognize one another as soul mates is as well suited to the story of grown siblings as it is to that of lovers. After all, for many people, their sibling relationships are the most lasting, intense, complex pairings of their lives.”

It’s really too bad that she didn’t take this prime opportunity to coin the portmanteau for this new rom-com-inspired but sans-heter-lust genre of relationship film. Her apt observation adds The Skeleton Twins to a host of recent films that have taken our most beloved and derided format and made it fresh again with the exploration of a different kind of relationship — an umbrella which includes the recent ensemble family dramedy This is Where I Leave You, Joe Swanburg’s sweet, independent, improvised tales of in-law bonding and platonic bestie-ships, Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies, 2012’s exploration of female friendship and discovery of self, Frances Ha and, sure, the passable magnification of one kid’s life and all of the relationships that shape it in this summer’s Boyhood (Guys, I hate Richard Linklater so illogically and instinctively).

In what was originally an anonymous advice column for The Rumpus called “Dear Sugar,” Cheryl Strayed out-and-out lambasted a gentleman who wrote in about his refusal to tell the people in his life that he loved them: “It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and ‘loaded with promises and commitments’ that we may or may not want or keep.” What works best about this new genre, is that it takes into account that fact that relationships do not only go forward or stop — they make progress and they dash it, they start over and they have nasty lapses, they are forced into continuation by resented obligation or selfless love, and often both (more on this when Reese Witherspoon portrays the woman who saved my life in December’s Wild).

And cheers to the age of Hader and Wiig: the happiest coupling of 21st century cinema.