‘Twins’ shows family at rock bottom
The sad clown character originated in 17th-century France with Pierrot, a tragically naïve lover. An emblem for the lonely sufferer and struggling artist, the character appeared on Europe’s stage for three centuries.
Pierrot’s struggles are born anew — and doubled — in director Craig Johnson’s new dramedy, “The Skeleton Twins” (2014), his second feature-length film.
In the film’s opening, estranged twins Milo and Maggie coincidentally attempt suicide at nearly the same moment. Milo’s attempt (Bill Hader) to cut his wrists lands him at the hospital, and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) is interrupted from downing a handful of pills when she receives a call about her brother.
After 10 years apart, the “Gruesome Twosome” reunite and find a way to tread water, buoyed with hopes of discovering where they went so wrong.
Milo, a failed actor living in Los Angeles, remains hung up on his closeted high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell), with whom he had sex at 15. Milo is Hader’s “Saturday Night Live” Stefon character reincarnated, but with the knob turned down to nearly mute. Instead of advertisements for clubs like Oomph and Crease, we get sardonic jibes aimed at Maggie’s Martha Stewart catalogue home and apple pie husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). Maggie, a dental hygienist, cheats on Lance with her scuba diving, French-cooking nature photography instructor. Each acts like his or her SNL persona straitjacketed within layers of mid-life anxieties.
Intercut between their moments of distress are flashes from a childhood Halloween, when their father was still alive, in which the twins play with toy skeletons while lovingly dressing each other up. Supposedly a moment of sibling grace, the memory is thrown into stark relief against the harsh realities of their adult lives. With an inattentive, egotistical mother and father who died early, the siblings hide behind a thick skin of resigned cynicism.
While Johnson occasionally allows the former SNL heavyweights to let their shticks shine through — when they inhale nitrous oxide together at the dentist’s office or dress up for Halloween — the film’s tone is generally morose and discontent. Moments of whimsy or delight are immediately undercut by some devastating revelation. An uplifting lip-synced dance to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” arguably the film’s best scene, comes to an abrupt halt when Rich slams a door in Milo’s face.
And the twins enjoy inflicting pain on each other. Like an indie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966), Milo and Maggie jump in where George and Martha left off, each spewing vitriol to emotionally crush the other and gain some faux sense of stability. They endure the present traumas to forget older ones.
As Martha laments, Milo and Maggie are “sad, sad, sad.” Do not let the trailer fool you; it condenses all the film’s laughs into a two-minute snapshot, tempting viewers like cheese on a mousetrap.
After a couple more suicide attempts, the twins hit the rock-hard bottom of “reality.” In what Thoreau would call their transcendental moment, they finally acknowledge that they are drowning. Like Milo’s pet goldfish, however, they will need short memories to distance themselves from the trauma of their pasts.
As Maggie laments, “We must find a way not to be disappointed with life.” Each twin hopes to shed his or her Pierrot straitjacket and become the no longer sad clown, enjoying life instead of mocking it. Like a bad Houdini trick though, these two have been underwater for too long.
Exhausted, the audience can at least escape the anguish when the film’s credits roll.
“The Skeleton Twins” is playing at 4:40 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Nugget.