THE SKELETON TWINS. I don't bear heartfelt indie dramedies any ill will, but they rarely suit my taste. Maybe I've been made callous by decades of broad Hollywood entertainments and hardboiled crime fiction. Whatever the reason, there's some bridge-building to be done in order for me to connect with a movie like The Skeleton Twins. With its detailed, observant writing, enveloping aesthetic and solid performances, though, the movie does most of the heavy lifting. It may not be a new favorite, but it exceeds my expectations.
Just as Maggie Dean (Kristen Wiig) stands on the precipice of pill-assisted suicide in upstate New York, she learns that her estranged twin, Milo (Bill Hader), has a head-start on her, having opened his wrists in a Los Angeles bathtub. Maggie flies west into a prickly reunion and convinces Milo to come stay with her and her bro-with-a-heart-of-gold husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). Gradually we learn that the twins are still coping with the fallout from their father's suicide in their adolescence and the absence of their chakra-massaging mother. Then there's the whole of issue of Milo's disastrous affair with his English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell) back in sophomore year.
The Deans' world is littered with emotional landmines, and their attempts to navigate it meet with limited success. Milo leans hard on booze and attempts at rekindling old flames; Maggie takes classes and searches for hobbies, all the while actively sabotaging her marriage.
Were it not for the care given by director Craig Johnson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Heyman) and his cast, The Skeleton Twins could easily slide either into full darkness or messy self-parody. Instead it offers a sincere — perhaps too sincere at times — look at the legacy of suicide and unmanaged depression. Milo and Maggie are shades away from caricature, but the subtlety in the way the characters are drawn and the nuance of the lead performances makes them plausible and real.
Hader, in particular, is shockingly effective. He's long been one of the funniest actors working, but I didn't expect this. He walks a fine line as Milo, a character that could find a lesser actor in deep trouble. Not everybody can pull off the precocious, troubled gay kid from a small town without going self-indulgently morbid or comically over the top. He pulls it off, though, with tremendous care, attention to detail and charisma. Wiig does fine work, too, but Maggie is a quieter, more internal part, and she frequently cedes the spotlight. Wilson returns to form here, in a role that is both broadly comic and sadly true. Lance's character might best represent what The Skeleton Twins is about. In clumsier hands, a movie about death and lifelong suffering would dismiss him as a meathead, a one-dimensional lug who exists only to exacerbate Maggie's self-loathing. But Lance is drawn as a real human being: a dude's dude, but one with genuine feelings and insights.
We might wish for a little more comedy and a little less drama, but this is well-observed, competently executed stuff, from the writing to the performances. It is better and more emotionally resonant than most movies of the last several months. It isn't perfect, but it is well worth a look. R. 93m.
THE JUDGE. It's tough to come to a decision about The Judge. Knee-jerk: Director David Dobkin is swinging for the fences in a self-conscious attempt to gather up some of the awards nominations for which Wedding Crashers (2005) was overlooked. It's got a powerful cast, a heartstring-plucking narrative set in the heartland and even Spielberg's go-to director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, wantonly deploying his lens-flares. The whole thing feels heavy with its own desire to be recognized, from its dark courtroom sequences to its obese running time. There are glimpses of near-greatness within it, but the whole affair is brought down by trying too hard.
Hard-charging, ethically compromised defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is called home to Carlinville, Indiana to bury his mother. He's severely distanced from his judge father Joe (Robert Duvall), who, shortly after the funeral, stands accused of murder. Hank takes it upon himself to simultaneously defend and reconnect with Dad. There's a lot of drama with his brothers: Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) was a baseball phenom who would've gone pro, had his pitching hand not been damaged in an accident with Hank at the wheel; Dale (Jeremy Strong), the developmentally-delayed, amateur documentary filmmaker, serves as the family's conscience. And let's not forget the girlfriend Hank left behind two decades ago, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who still pines for him.
There are things to like about The Judge, especially in the performances, but everything is too on-the-nose to be taken seriously. It feels like a throwback drama, with vestiges of those '90s John Grisham adaptations, shot through with an excess of seriousness that undermines all it's got going for it. R. 142m.
— John J. Bennett
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill