There's always a strange fascination when a comedian decides to take on a dramatic role. Often it doesn't leave us entirely satisfied, but every so often we've been exhilarated and surprised to find that the people we turn to to make us laugh are capable of charting deeper waters. Kristen Wiig has been threatening to head in that direction for a while, and with 'The Skeleton Twins' she finally does, bringing fellow SNL alumni Bill Hader along with her. Together, they produce a kind of magic that only comes from a true understanding of the fine line between comedy and tragedy.
Twins Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) have been out of contact for ten years, but by an unusual coincidence they both attempt suicide on the same day. Milo's attempt was closer to success, so Maggie forces him to live with her and her human labrador of a husband Lance (Luke Wilson). As both come to grips with their brushes with death, they start to face and accept their personal demons, Milo's unfulfilled potential and Maggie being stuck in a marriage she hates. After spending years facing these challenges on their own, maybe reuniting might make a difference.
For a cinematic point of view, 'The Skeleton Twins' is an unremarkable achievement for director Craig Johnson, but this is mostly to his credit. The focus of the film is on its characters, and he works from a great (if at times cliché) screenplay co-written with Mark Heyman. The film makes no apologies in dealing head-on with the issues of depression and suicide, but rather than allowing the film to buckle under the weight of such material, they've found a lightness and matter-of-fact voice in their approach. Johnson has a terrific cast at his disposal, and so mostly just steps out of the way in an attempt to accommodate their needs. Even with all the dark material around it, the heart of 'The Skeleton Twins' is the rebuilding of the relationship between Maggie and Milo, and rather than contriving convenient solutions to their problems, events unfold with often brutal simplicity and realism. The consequence of action is a lesson for both to learn, and the narrative allows for this exploration. Johnson has no cinematic tricks up his sleeve, but the film is well-paced and intelligently shot, and leaves you with a sense that what you've watched has a heart and a purpose.
Of course the major pull for this film is to see what Wiig and Hader can do. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Wiig is absolutely terrific, as adept with the drama as much as the tragedy. Her performance sits in the space between the two, that delectable tension of wondering in what direction she will go. Although she probably won't for this film, but if this is an indication, don't be surprised if she ends with an Oscar one day. The great delight though is Bill Hader, who proves to be just as skillful as his co-star. Milo is the more "showy" role, a gay actor riddled with emotion and neurosis, but what a relief to see Hader err away from the cliché and worry about Milo as a character rather than a sexuality. He demonstrates subtlety in this film I've not seen from him before, and leaves you hoping we'll see this kind of work from him again. And together, Wiig and Hader are absolutely electric, a powerhouse on-screen team that bring out the best in each other. When the shit hits the fan, both come out with guns blazing, and leave you cheering as the twins find a place for each other in their complicated lives. I also can't not mention the excellent work from Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell as Milo's old high school teacher and Joanna Gleeson as their self-absorbed hippy mother. They complement the leads to create a terrific ensemble without which the film would not be as magical as it is.
Wiig and Hader are absolutely electric, a powerhouse on-screen team that bring out the best in each other.
'The Skeleton Twins' is not a particularly unique film, covering ground we've seen trodden many times before, but what sets it apart is a pair of truly memorable performances. Credit must go to Craig Johnson for allowing Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader to show what they can do with dramatic material. Sitting comfortably alongside the tried-and-true relationship dramas we curl up on the couch to watch, 'The Skeleton Twins' is a beautifully pitched film that asks you to feel for a bit, sometimes in ways that feel close to home or too difficult, but rewards you with joy, hope and heart.