Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Family Dysfunction: 'Leave' the 'Skeleton' in the Closet?

Family dysfunction is quite common in film. An audience can laugh at the familiarity between the characters and be taught a lesson about their own brood. Does it always work? Not necessarily. Last year's August: Osage County was a hit with the awards crowd, but that was based on a lauded, Pulitzer-Prize winning play. The Skeleton Twins and This is Where I Leave You are this fall's two dysfunctional family offerings, but are they both worth taking the time to visit?

Jonathan Tropper's This is Where was one of the best books I've read in a long time, so I was anxious for it to get the big-screen treatment. What would stay? What would go? Gone Girl is a great example of a novel being adapted and slimmed down, but I'm not necessarily sure that Tropper did his own novel justice. 

Jason Bateman's Judd Altman gets hit with the double whammy of his father's passing and his wife's infidelity with his boss within days of each other. His father's last dying wish was for the entire family to sit shiva, even though the Altman's aren't "particularly Jewish," a concept that is hammered into the audience. His siblings include the tired Wendy (Tina Fey, not tired enough in my opinion), argumentative Paul (Corey Stoll, channeling some hot Michael Cerveris Sweeney Todd bald realness), and impulsive and childish Philip (Adam Drive, in full-cusp-of-superstardom mode). Their mother, played by Jane Fonda, just had an impressive boob job, and she is about to embark on the anniversary tour of the family therapy book that she wrote and humiliated her kids with. 

In addition to the Altmans are an abundance of spouses and girlfriends and family acquaintances. This film is almost bursting with characters that it's like you need to go outside and take a breath at Thanksgiving just to get some air. Tropper's screenplay barely skims the surface of how Judd feels about his father, and it spends too much time making sure it hits all the "important" stuff that fans are wanting to see (I was most disappointed that Judd didn't hurt the lit birthday cake at a naked Dax Shepard). 

The cast definitely has chemistry, and Bateman is allowed to be truly sad in his scruffiness instead of someone's straight man. Surely, this must have been a fun set to work on, but the connection between Judd and his father feels kind of lost. There is one scene where he remembers his father giving him a nickname, but it hardly feels like enough. The rest of the shenanigans surrounding his family weigh down the true discoveries of the novel. While I understand that the Altmans fight, I got a bit sick of them chasing each other around the front yard and fighting with each other. Loved it on the page but not on the screen. Perhaps I will be able to appreciate the Altman clan down the road when the details of Tropper's pages are fuzzier in my mind.  

Unlike This is Where I Leave You, The Skeleton Twins primarily focuses on the relationship between Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader), a pair of twins who happen to cheat death on the same day. Milo gets closer. He slices his wrists in the bathtub, and Maggie is about to swallow a handful of pills when she receives the call from the hospital. They haven't seen each other in over ten years, but, like most siblings, they pick up right where they left off. 

There is an easiness between Maggie and Milo, and that's probably because Wiig and Hader spent so much time working together on Saturday Night Live. Their relationship is a perfect demonstration of how siblings act around one another (Fey and Driver have this ease together in This is Where). It's an unspoken, comfortable bond that is so present it almost radiates from them. 

At the doctor's suggestion, Maggie takes Milo home to live with her and her cheerful husband, Lance (Luke Wilson, smiley and gung ho in every sense of the word). Maggie and Lance have been trying to have a baby, but Lance doesn't know that Maggie is hiding her birth control pills and sleeping with other men. Milo begins working for Lance's landscaping company to make some extra money, and he lies to people as to why he is in town (he says that he has an agent back in Los Angeles). Ty Burrell plays Milo's former married flame, and his presence causes a rift between Milo and his sister. 

Wiig might not be everyone's cup of tea, but she doesn't get the dramatic opportunities that she should. When people complain that she's obnoxious, I encourage them to watch her performance as Jason Bateman's cheating wife in Extract, and she's given a meatier role here with Maggie. She's the girl who never left town, but you never took the opportunity to get to know. Hader's Milo is adorable in his desperation. Thrown out of the comfort of the city, it's amusing to watch him try to pick up men in the local gay bar only to find out that it's dyke night. 

Skeleton also takes place around Halloween, and my heart just ached to be around pumpkins, falling leaves and sweater weather. The entire film felt like it was ready to be warmed up by a big, oversized sweatshirt. 

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