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The Skeleton Twins

Nothing's gonna stop us now!  Except possibly for some smarmy lip syncing
amid a gratuitous dance scene.  Bill Heder and Kristin Wiig in The Skeleton Twins.
Even if you attend a screening of The Skeleton Twins with an awareness of the film's subject matter, you probably won't expect to see its main characters winding and kicking along a hillside at dusk, led by the embodiment of death, prior to the closing credits.  No, if America has a danse macabre, that's hardly it, even if we (like Bergman) were to pluck from history the inspiration and form of such a procession.  That's just not us.  One can report this with certainty, if not relief.  The problem, dear friends, the worrisome thing, is that our dance might be best performed to a Starship song.  So it goes, at least, in The Skeleton Twins.

Bill Heder and Kristen Wiig are Billy and Maggy, brother and sister, if not actually twins. They haven't talked in decade at the outset of The Skeleton Twins, though the siblings have arrived at similar psychic states a country apart.  Maggy, pills in hand, has her suicide attempt preempted by a call to announce that her older brother is in the hospital after an unsuccessful attempt of his own.

Accompanying charmingly ghoulish home movie images of their childhood, Wiig explains in voiceover that dad was probably to blame for the depressive tendencies of his children, whom he dubbed, "the gruesome twosome."  It seems that Maggy and Billy experienced something of a middle class Addams Family existence with a fun if morbid father who checked out permanently while they were still children.

Old Saturday Night Live pals Wiig and Heder could well be honorary sister and brother at this point. Beyond their years together on the NBC comedy war horse,  Their substantial and ever-growing resumes include several films together.  In the case of the Skeleton Twins, Heder and Wiig manage to convey both the estrangement present as Billy and Maggy take the measure of one another in his California hospital, as well as the emotional thaw that occurs after the brother reluctantly joins his sister in her Brookyn home, shared by her almost insuperably good-natured husband, Lance (Luke Wilson).

Depression, or even attempted suicide, might be the case in The Skeleton Skeleton Twins, but for audiences going in, the question is likely not "to be or not to be," so much as when will the jokes begin.  So the comedic pedigree of the two leads suggests, which the film's trailer does nothing to discourage.  Of course, trailers discourage very little these days except intelligent life.

For their part, Wiig and Heder are quite willing and able to play it straight...or gay, as the case may be.  Among its more dubious accomplishments, Bridesmaids proved that Kristen Wiig can carry a film, as much by her ability to evoke sympathy as to make us laugh.  The very pleasant surprise with The Skeleton Twins is Bill Heder.  His is a touching performance, credible without making the common mistake of straight actors playing gay characters.  Heder's Billy is full and flawed, a character who happens to be gay without the actor resorting to camp, or simply trying too hard.

For a while, The Skeleton Twins goes seriously, if not too earnestly about its work, earning its modest laughs.  Despite the superficial dynamic of solid older sibling and fuckup baby of the family, we know better, thanks to the early the glimpse into Maggy's despondency.  Billy might be another California washout, vague dreams of acting giving way to the usual reality of waiting tables, but Maggy is desperately bored with her very good, not very dashing husband.  She takes birth control pills on the sly while the couple are ostensibly trying to conceive their first child.  Maggy also takes a very hands-on approach to adult education, an affair with her tattooed Aussie scuba diving instructor that latest in a series of such flings with teachers, she later confesses to Billy.  These affairs are one of several implausibilities offered by the script of Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman.  The pool also offers Mr. Johnson the opportunity for the hack shot of a film's main character submerging in a kind of daze, diving beneath a watery blanket to hide from a world for which they feel ambivalence if not outright dread.

To give us a fuller sense of the murky emotional current against which the brother and sister have swum, there is also a brief visit from their mother (Joanna Gleason), courtesy of an ill-advised invitation proffered by Billy.  Mom is full of new age platitudes and the willingness to clean auras, but not so keen to spend much time or invest any depth of emotion with her kids.  So maybe it wasn't all dad's fault.

Ultimately, Wiig and Heder are like two accomplished athletes, skaters or gymnasts, patiently working their way through the technical portion of their routine before getting to the skill for which they are best know. Eventually, the time comes for them to tumble, perform their triple axle, make us laugh.  To be fair to these particular performers, the predictable choreography is not their fault.  Mr. Johnson is the pushy coach making all of this happen from the sidelines.  So, we have a heart to heart in Maggy's workplace after she has cleaned her brother's teeth and allowed him liberal amounts of nitrous oxide.  Of course, she indulges in the laughing gas as well.  Laughs, as they must, ensue.  This - as when Wiig dons some conveniently outdated-looking headgear -  is the comedic equivalent of the feel-good musical montage.  But there is music yet to come in The Skeleton Twins.  Sort of.

Billy later disarms Maggy, irate at his meddling in her marriage, by cuing Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" for a living room dance party.  Maggy tries to stay angry, but we all know how that's going to go.  Resistance in the zero gravity of such film scenes is futile.  She eventually floats up from her seat and it's on.  This is all painfully charming, Heder certainly sells it, but the sequence might as well be an outtake from Bridesmaids.  And if The Skeleton Twins provides the sort of reanimation to Starship as Bridesmaids did for Wilson Phillips, the makers will have a lot more to answer for than a middling piece of work.

Neither of these scenes quite spoil a classic in the making, but they do limit the degree to which any of the film or its willing actors can be taken seriously.  A later scene, which mixes humor, pathos, sibling bonding and cross dressing, demonstrates that The Skeleton Twins hardly need resort to cliche to buoy its audience.  It's Halloween.  Billy consents to accompany Maggy and let her dress him in drag.  The two wander through an urban parade of Halloween celebration and decoration before settling in a bar to reminisce.  As opposed to the imported goodwill of the earlier lip syncing and nitrous riffing, this scene actually seems to spring from a certain logic of story, continuity of character.  It makes sense, it entertains and doesn't seem forced.  In a rare moment of depth, the script of Johnson and Heyman even hints that Maggy's livid response to Billy continuing involvement with his former high school English teacher (Ty Burrell) might be less a matter of protecting her younger brother than responding like a jilted lover.  Unfortunately, a hint of depth is about all we get in The Skeleton Twins.    

America tends to be a country of feel-good myths and reality avoidance.  It's a kind of toxin that seeps into all but the most scrupulous of narratives.  The Skeleton Twins is in no way immune to such comfort-seeking.  Death, of course, is the ultimately reality to be dodged.  But that futile two-step makes for a tired dance, cheap storytelling.  Our culture might never manage a danse macabre to match the richness of those in Mexico, Ireland and elsewhere.  We're not likely to, nor should we don antic costumes and parade after the guy in black with the big reaper as daylight fades.  But must our dance and its second hand moves occur to the schlock accompaniment of "Nothing's gonna stop us now?"



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