The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Dir: Craig Johnson
Saturday Night Live co-stars and professional funny people Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reunite on the silver screen in Craig Johnson’s melancholic and touching comedy The Skeleton Twins. Those used to the electric personas that Wiig (Target Lady! Gilly!) and Hader (Stefon! Vincent Price!) embodied in so many SNL skits may find their more subdued acting here initially jarring, but an intimate and personal story along with well-drawn characters go a long way towards selling the redemptive tale.
The Skeleton Twins broadcasts its intentions from the first scene as estranged bi-coastal twins – East-coast Maggie (Wiig) and West-coast Milo (Hader) – simultaneously attempt suicide. Milo gets farther than Maggie, and as a result Maggie’s forced into the odd position of being thrust back into her brother’s life to provide support. At the counselor’s request she invites him back to her quaint upstate NY home. Close knit as kids but forced apart by (initially) unknown circumstances, they quickly catch up and fall into familiar rhythms. Quiet and thoughtful Maggie is now married to blue collar Lance (Luke Wilson) and has uneasily grown into a home-owning adult. Dramatic and funny Milo nurses a failed career as an actor and has a string of broken relationships, the most recent of which was the reason for his suicide attempt. In essence they’re lost kids finding their way as adults – two broken people mutually harming and helping one another but forever bound by familial ties.
Wiig’s previously proved her big-screen bonafides with her breakout role in Bridesmaids, and once again she’s more of a straight (wo)man here to the wilder antics of her co-stars. Although The Skeleton Twins is more rooted in reality and less broad than Bridesmaids, Wiig’s co-stars in both get to go bigger than her.
Wiig plays yearning well, as Maggie questions her life choices and continually self-sabotages her relationship with the decent but dim Lance. Her character is at a crossroads, an existential crisis, and if it’s not quite a Bill Murray-in-Rushmore style career reinvention then it’s at least a refreshing new side to her often manic performances.
Hader gets the showier role as the deeply cynical Milo, a gay man that is miles away from his most famous SNL creation of Stefon. Milo’s relationships are equally if not more dysfunctional than Maggie’s (and not as absurd as Stefon’s), and his tragic back story is slowly revealed as the plot progresses. You’d think that Milo would clash with the square Lance, but their growing fondness for one another is one of the more fun aspects of the movie. The scenes where they work together clearing brush reminded me of the simple pleasures of David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche. Both films have a lived-in charm and unassuming approach to bringing you into a rounded world full of characters with rich inner lives. I suspect this role will open doors for Hader in much the same way that fellow SNL alum Will Forte’s career has expanded after the similarly winning Nebraska.
There’s a triumphant scene mid-movie when Milo coerces Maggie into lip-syncing along to Jefferson Starship that is sweet and funny and uplifting all at once. It’s charming much like the movie itself. Co-writer and director Craig Johnson does an admirable job of juggling comedy and outright drama, as most of the laughs are earned and the pathos not too forced. Milo narrowly skirts the stereotype of the “tragic gay man” (which is referenced in film) mostly on the strength of Hader’s performance, while Wiig’s character of Maggie goes in surprising directions that shrug off convention. Well-meaning and deeply felt, The Skeleton Twins is alternately funny and affecting, proudly wearing its bruised heart on its sleeve.