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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 19, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Review: ‘The Skeleton Twins’ proves skeletal despite impressive performances

"The Skeleton Twins"

Directed by Craig Johnson

As “The Skeleton Twins” opens, Milo (Bill Hader) has just cut his wrists. Shortly thereafter, Maggie (Kristen Wiig), his twin sister, gets a phone call informing her of her brother’s suicide attempt, while she’s holding a handful of pills, presumably ready to take her own life. The jarring opening is supplemented with images of the two characters’ childhood, playing with toy skeletons with their deceased father. Milo and Maggie reconnect after 10 years of separation as a result of their suicide attempt, uniting them in some twisted way. But as they reunite, it becomes clear: Neither has matured since seeing each other last.

Moments of emotion and drama fuel the film. Milo sees the loveless marriage between Maggie and Lance (Luke Wilson), and his emotional state grows worse as he fails to find love with his much older former teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell). As a result of these emotional conflicts, Milo and Maggie’s relationship as siblings takes a dynamic role throughout, growing and changing as the two mature as adults over the course of the movie.

Hader and Wiig take the opportunity to act dramatically and show off their abilities. Hader has had experience in the genre of comedy films, including hits like “Superbad.” Wiig has starred in the comedy hit “Bridesmaids” and in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Both actors can play off each other well, perhaps illustrating a chemistry built off seven years at “Saturday Night Live.” Even when the tone of the film takes a darker turn, the two continue to work together and make scenes feel significant.

Hader’s effort, in particular, is impressive. In one instance, he becomes angry when seeing the marriage of Maggie and Lance, and conveys a disturbingly believable and childlike love for Rich. This shows how little Milo’s character has grown in 10 years, as he has yet to come to terms with why they had to cease communication. Not until he gets into a yelling match with Maggie does Milo begin to understand the nature of his relationship with Rich.

When the cinematography aids the acting, “The Skeleton Twins” comes alive. In one scene, Milo stares out the window of a car, with the trees breezing by. This notion of things flying by him aptly illustrates how little control Milo has at this stage in his life. In another instance, when Milo looks into a mirror crying, the screen dissolves into Maggie crying at a mirror — the dual states of mind are shown without any dialogue.

Unfortunately, such shots are few and far between. Most simply show Maggie or Milo with seemingly little effort put into advancing the plot, and ultimately become overused and disorienting. The same can be said about the editing, the weakest part of the film: Scenes and shots begin and end far too abruptly and make the movie feel almost lifeless in spite of the cast’s best effort. One scene, where Milo and Maggie get into a big argument after a Halloween party, stands out. The argument gets very tense, but the next scene is a hard cut back at their house to Milo talking to Lance. With a softer transition, it could show more emotion and keep the audience invested. Instead, it’s swift and distracting.

Editing is problematic, as are the film’s recurring motifs, which fail to advance the story, and end up hurting its overall storytelling. The use of water to represent purity or childhood is distracting. Water has a constant presence in the film, with shots lingering on a pool or fish tank. Stylistically, it ends up taking away from what the cast is doing. Water should show how the characters are changing, but it feels forced, not unlike the other central motif of skeletons. Milo and Maggie share skeleton marionettes, and shots are built around their existence. It’s not subtle in the least and ends up overdoing the metaphor for childhood. Alone these wouldn’t be an issue, but the attempt to be “artsy” should feel natural, and instead it feels stilted.

When “The Skeleton Twins” has the cast do what it does best — be funny — the film is enjoyable. Hader and Wiig are a pleasure to watch work together, but distracting stylistic choices drag the film down and take away from the viewing experience.