Saturday Night Live alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reveal a strong capacity for drama, while maintaining the affable charm that have made them beloved figures in the comedy world, in “The Skeleton Twins.” However, even with strong performances from the leads, an often-clever script and unobtrusive direction, the film never quite manages to capture the emotional impact that the seriousness of the film’s darker themes and actions would dictate. The elements of the film allow it to fit so snugly in the realm of an indie art film that its familiarity makes the viewer feel unfazed or indifferent about its events, when they should be devastated.
In accord with it’s indie cred, the screenplay for “The Skeleton Twins,” by Craig Johnson (who also directed) and Mark Heyman, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It’s the story of twins, Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig), who were extremely close growing up. Together they dealt with the tragic death of their father, but were eventually estranged by further distressful life trials. In the present day, they haven’t spoken in ten years. Milo is a gay, struggling actor/waiter in Los Angeles and Maggie has a seemingly nice life with happy-go-lucky husband, Lance, (Luke Wilson), but is in reality crippled with inner demons that exemplify themselves in ways that could be shattering to her marriage. When we first meet the twins as adults, they are both, individually, in their own life-and-death situation. And it’s one of those situations that eventually brings them back together, to reconnect, help each other deal with themselves and rediscover the sibling love they once had for one another.
The use of comedic actors helps keep the film from delving too far into the melodramatic or maudlin. Wiig utilizes a variation of the same kind of manic insecurity used in “Bridesmaids” for big laughs, but in Skeleton Twins it creates vulnerability for Maggie that doesn’t excuse the series of deplorable things she does, but does help shape a frame of reference to understand what motivates her. Anyone familiar with Hader’s most famous SNL character, New York City scenester, Stefon, will inevitably catch reminiscent glimpses in certain mannerisms of Milo, but for the most part Hader’s characterization is subtle. He seems to constantly be hiding a deep hurt that’s threatening to surface. But Wiig and Hader aren’t the only ones playing against type. “Modern Family’s” Ty Burrell plays a former teacher of Milo’s, with whom he has a history. Also, interestingly, Wilson, who’s always likable in a breezy kind of way, but doesn’t have the farcical background of the other members of the cast, is employed here as the most straightforward comic relief and he excels quite nicely at it.
The strongest draw of the film is the chemistry between its two stars. Wiig and Hader worked together for seven years on SNL and their ability to effortlessly play off of each other is clearly on display. Wiig said of her co-star, “Before we did this we were very close. I always considered him like a brother…” It’s this comfortability that makes the pair so believable as siblings who shared a womb.
With such complex characters so ably performed, it’s a little baffling why “The Skeleton Twins” really didn’t resonate as a film. It was as if once the groundwork was set, the film strived just to hit the indie film benchmarks and move on. Moments that were perhaps supposed to be big reveals lacked surprise, almost like they were only the expected progression of the story. Maybe the film is supposed to work more as a character study, but if you’re dealing with the heavier themes and the consequences that Skeleton Twins is, it doesn’t seem out of the realms of possibility to expect more of an emotional investment.
Even if it is ultimately unfulfilling, “The Skeleton Twins” greatest accomplishment is showcasing the impressive talents of Wiig and Hader, who prove themselves to be not only gifted comedians, but simply good actors.
By Adrian Vina
Rated R for language, some sexuality and drug use.
Running time: 93 minutes