Thursday, January 8, 2015

Former SNL Players Deliver the Goods in "Skeleton Twins" and "Obvious Child"

Skeleton Twins utilizes the time-honed chemistry of its leads.
From Bill Murray to Will Forte, there’s a long tradition of SNL performers who have made a successful transition to dramatically-tinged films. The other night, I took in two of the latest movies to give former not-ready-for-prime-time players such a spotlight – Skeleton Twins and Obvious Child – and I came away very impressed with the results.

In Skeleton Twins, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as Maggie and Milo, two mid-thirties twins who have been estranged for a decade. After Milo botches a suicide attempt, the siblings become reacquainted, with Maggie offering Milo the chance to move from California back to New York where he can stay with her in their hometown while he recovers.

To most onlookers, Milo would be the clear black sheep of the family. He’s a suicidal, failed actor – “another tragic gay cliché” as he says – while she seemingly has everything – steady job, nice house, and an affable and eager husband (Luke Wilson in his best performance outside a Wes Anderson film) with whom she’s trying to conceive a child.

But things aren’t really that rosy for Maggie, which is something that’s hinted at when we first meet her (she’s contemplating swallowing a handful of pills when she gets interrupted by a phone call about Milo’s attempted suicide), and that becomes increasingly clear as we learn more and more about her self-sabotaging behaviors.  Both Maggie and Milo are living lives filled with crippling isolation and regret, and they need to come back together if they have any chance of healing.

That all reads pretty heavy on its own, and it doesn’t even account for Maggie and Milo’s screwed up upbringing, which is highlighted by their father’s suicide, a sex scandal involving a pedophiliac teacher, and abandonment by a new age mother.

Although the laundry list of family issues may seem like one or two too many skeletons in the closet, the film handles it all well enough, and, mercifully, this isn’t one of those direly dark films comedic actors sometimes make to prove dramatic bonafides. While Wiig and Hader carry the dramatic material with aplomb, Skeleton Twins is also a very funny film, chiefly due to the time-honed chemistry between the two costars. There’s an intuitive connection there, and I’d be shocked if several of their scenes – particularly one set in a dentist office – weren’t at least partially improvised. 

In a lot of ways, the film plays like an adaptation of a book (I could easily imagine Skeleton Twins as one of those every-other-chapter-narrator novels that jostles back and forth between two points of view). This is a layered film with a lot of depth, but I won’t lie: things do fall off a bit as the film reaches its conclusion.  Although momentum builds tremendously toward a wrenching and raw blowout between the leads, everything is then quickly tied up in an unbelievable climax.

Still, there’s a something great about watching Wiig and Hader inhabit these characters together, and both deliver in ways they haven’t before. Wiig, for all her greatness, has never seemed this real on film, while Hader does revelatory work as the sardonic misanthrope who is simultaneously goofy, vulnerable and relatable. He’s long been a scene-stealer, but Skeleton Twins doesn’t just mark his first dramatic role – it marks his first role of real substance period. With this role, Hader proves that as great as he is at hitting one note jokes, he’s more than capable of handling three-dimensionality.

Jenny Slate is both hilarious and touching in Obvious Child.
Jenny Slate accomplishes that same feat in Obvious Child, the debut film from writer/director Gillian Robespierre. Unlike Wiig and Hader, Slate isn’t an SNL icon. Her stint lasted only one season, and she’s probably best remembered for accidentally saying the F-word during her first on-air appearance.

Nevertheless, Slate has made numerous recurring appearances on the likes of Parks and Recreation and Bob’s Burgers (my two favorites!) since leaving SNL, killing it in the type of comically broad roles that wouldn’t be out of place on the late-night sketch show. But with Obvious Child, she’s been given the chance to play something far more nuanced.

Slate plays Donna, a late 20s book store employee who moonlights as a stand-up comic. After her boyfriend dumps her and she loses her job, Donna has a one-night stand with an earnest nice guy (Jake Lacey, who people might recognize as Jim 2.0 from the later seasons of The Office). The experience causes Donna to get pregnant and she decides to get an abortion, all the while the guy keeps trying to hang out with her.

The film has become known as the abortion comedy, and that is and isn’t an apt description. Yes it contains an abortion, but few people would call Fast Times at Ridgemont High a movie about abortion, and it's the same here.

Obvious Child takes no stance – political, moral or otherwise – on topic; it just so happens to be about a woman who, finding herself unfit to be a parent, decides to have an abortion, grows a little from the experience, and then begins a relationship with the man who inseminated her. It's like a Woody Allenesque take on the romantic beats of Juno... except with adults... and an abortion.

Slate is a revelation as Donna, carrying the film on her small shoulders while embodying a whole series of contradictions (adorable and crude, aloof and neurotic, vulnerable and strong). Like any good comedian, Donna is daring on stage, with barely any filter, sharing everything up there, including intimate details of her personal life (and the lives of those closest to her). This movie is about how she learns to share and open up when she's not on stage.

Obvious Child is a really funny, almost feel-good film, which is odd to say given the narrative, but there it is. It's a top film of 2015 for me, even though I do have some reservations about the overly rosy finale -- everything resolves so unbelievably perfectly for the lead that it began reminding me a bit of Pretty Woman.

That said, the movie earns a lot of good will, and the final scene is a perfect way to close out the particular story their telling here. This isn't really about abortion, just like Pretty Woman wasn't really about prostitution. A proper tonal and thematic comparison would be something like Frances Ha or Girls, since Obvious Child is actually exploring the process of a young woman trying to find her footing in the world.

Skeleton Twins B, Obvious Child B+