(Review of the Steve James documentary)
After five hectic days back in the States, catching up on all the new releases during my ten-days of festival heaven, I wanted to take a moment to comment on the lasting impression out of the 25 films I had the pleasure to experience. It was a genuinely vacation-like escapade, with no more than four movies in a day, a real come-down from the usual six film marathon pace of Toronto (which doesn’t account for the additional time devoted to interviews and writing). Munich offered an opportunity to re-charge the creative and critical battery, to get in touch with myself as a viewer and a foreign voyeur (of both cinema and life).
And so, I find that I can’t escape the surprising performance of Bill Hader in Craig Johnson’s Sundance Festival award winner (The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) The Skeleton Twins. Hader and fellow Saturday Night Live alum Kristen Wiig play a set of twins, Milo and Maggie, estranged for a decade, who reunite after Milo’s unsuccessful suicide attempt in his home in California, which coincides with Maggie’s aborted attempt at nearly the same moment in New York. Maggie brings Milo back to the East Coast and the pair begins a slow joint healing process.
The premise prepares audiences for quirky indie tropes – morbid humor, overly self-aware banter – but Johnson has an ace in the hole, thanks to a sneaky performance from Hader, a funny man who recalls the spastic elasticity of Jim Carrey, but brings a restraint and a recognizable guy-next door humanity that even Carrey’s current falling star quality negates. Milo is a gay artiste, the high school talent everyone assumed would go on to bigger and better things while his more content classmates would slip into their pedestrian ruts, but Milo’s star never ascended, despite his best efforts.
Milo can’t shake the sad self-destructive cloud hanging over him, mainly because he sees its reflection hovering over his sister, although he’s initially unaware of her unfulfilled suicide attempt. The ordinary facade she has constructed with her frat guy hubby Lance (Luke Wilson) isn’t like those of their peers. Milo and Maggie, cut from the same cloth, are dreamers, and when in truly counts, survivors.
We’ve seen Wiig dig into these kinds of characters before, burrowing past the potential comic set-up to the sad clown within, but this is our first look at Hader under these conditions and he finds a lighter balance, leaning towards the humor moreso than you might imagine. Over time though, this decision pays off because he allows us to see just how close Milo really was to falling over the edge. Neither Maggie nor Milo was crying out for help, they were fully ready to embrace the end of things, and Hader’s performance wonderfully captures the reckless abandon that tethers him to life.
It seems like every year there is one Sundance release that hits the sweet spot in our sensibilities and The Skeleton Twins might be this year’s shot. Johnson was available for a brief Q&A after the public festival screening I attended in Munich. My takeaway from these exchanges was his response to meeting Hader to discuss the film. He mentioned being impressed with Hader as a film nerd. Their dialogue wasn’t full of back and forth banter with Hader eager to convince Johnson how funny he could be. Instead, Hader lovingly and obsessively talked movies. That idea is obviously what made him perfect for Milo and I can only hope other filmmakers take note. There’s nothing bare bones about the man. (tt stern-enzi)