Modern filmmaking has been defined by extremes. Today, movies are either self-indulgent, money-grabbing blockbusters, or pretentious, award-baiting art house films.
It wasn’t too long ago when movies struck a delightful balance of both, like, say, Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump or Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. Both films were masterfully told pieces of cinema without veering too far into commercialism or alienating the average filmgoer. People of all ages were allowed to watch these movies without fear that they were being an amateur cinephile or a savvy snob.
Now, audiences are forced to fall into two camps: you’re either seeing Marvel’s cartoony space opera Guardians of the Galaxy or Richard Linklater’s nearly three- hour opus Boyhood. Whether Guardians or Boyhood is any good is a moot dilemma you can discuss among your friends. The point is, moviegoers have been forced to divide themselves.
The Skeleton Twins, a favorite out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, manages to hark back to a time when cinema could appeal to everyone without losing its integrity. The film, now playing in theaters, follows estranged twin siblings Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) as they reconnect after Milo’s failed suicide attempt. Milo goes to live with Maggie only to discover she’s been cheating on her husband and doing her best to prevent a pregnancy.
And while that doesn’t necessarily sound like a movie that appeals to the masses—let alone one being marketed to them—it certainly is.
Going beyond the idea that films about family are inherently universal, The Skeleton Twins creates a delicious cocktail of drama and comedy. Well aware it’s only a movie (a scene in which Hader and Wiig lip sync to Starships’ campy hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” hilariously proves that point), the movie is not afraid to say something about life and love.
This type of cinema is often called a “dramedy.” And if you read that word with a negative connotation, it’s certainly understandable. A “drama-comedy” is often seen as a movie that tries much too hard to appeal to filmgoers who like their movies funny and audiences who like their movies to be sad and dramatic. It’s often criticized for trying so hard to please both audiences that it succeeds in appeasing neither.
Zach Braff’s latest, Wish I Was Here, was a film that, although far from perfect, got mercilessly pounded by critics this summer for trying to walk the tightrope between the two genres, and thus was dubbed a feature-length sitcom by elitist movie critics.
But those same critics didn’t see movies like Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, or Gump, in that same negative light. Even though the two movies skillfully blended comedy and drama, the filmmakers were never lambasted for trying to make a cookie-cutter film.
I don’t see a film like The Skeleton Twins or Wish I Was Here as pandering and indecisive either. Rather, it’s a best of both worlds scenario. The Skeleton Twins is laugh out loud funny—it does star, after all, two of the best SNL cast members in recent memory. It’s also heartachingly poignant and ever so human. It wears its heart on its sleeve. And yes, it’s well scripted, impeccably cast, and competently shot. But it’s also 90 minutes of pure, breezy, ‘only in the movies’ logic. And in that regard, it’s certainly a throwback.
In an increasingly diverse movie consuming country—and in the era of Netflix, where arguably more people are watching movies than ever before—it’s important to have films that are for viewers with specific tastes.
But it’s not a crime to make a movie that appeals to both your mom, your grandfather, and yourself—because part of the moviemaking art is not just how good the product is on a technical level, but how many unique audience members a film can enchant with its magic.