I would hate to have to market Craig Johnson’s new film The Skeleton Twins. It’s an almost-impossible task. It’s a dark drama, but has some hilarious moments, but calling it a dramedy sounds trite (Steel Magnolias is a dramedy). And when two of the three stars are Saturday Night Live alumni, of course it’s tempting to market it as a comedy, but Wiig and Hader do some heart-wrenching work. And its indie cred would make some want to push it as a quirky dark comedy a la Lars and the Real Girl or Little Miss Sunshine, but that would be a mistake because The Skeleton Twins is far too original for that. Instead, the film’s a strange, but beautiful experience, one in which viewers will wipe away tears from laughter and sadness – often at the same time.
Wiig and Hader play twins – Maggie and Milo. They’ve been estranged for ten years and are reunited when Maggie has to fly to L.A. to pick Milo up from the hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. The problem is that at the moment Maggie received the call about her brother she was about to end her own life by swallowing a fistful of pills. From this shared mutual despair, the two figure out just why they’re so unhappy. In upstate New York, Maggie lives a seemingly idyllic life, holding down a good job as a dental hygienist and being married to the lovable, if simple Lance (Luke Wilson). Because it appears that Maggie’s the one who’s got her shit together, she takes on the role of caretaker. Milo, understandably, chafes under his role as patient, and uses his sharp wit to deal with his sad situation.
Because Maggie never left their town, there are loads of dark secrets that Milo and she share – one of which is the handsome, middle-aged bookstore proprietor, Rich (Ty Burrell), who has a past with Milo. The two were lovers at one point, but an event intruded on their relationship that had devastating repercussions on Milo’s relationship with Maggie. I won’t go into the details of Milo’s affair with Rich, but it’s pretty easy to guess after their second scene together. But Milo’s return isn’t wholly welcomed by Rich and the two share a reunion that’s fraught with angst, tension, and regret.
Screenwriters Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson (who also directed the film) put together a beautiful story that is very sad, but there are moments of high comedy and hilarity that never undermines the drama. The plot moves at a leisurely pace, and that’s okay – these two characters are wonderful to watch, and their interactions are great because they’re based on years of a deeply intimate bond. Flashbacks give viewers glimpses of what Maggie and Milo were like as kids and often these flashbacks parallel the adult relationship. The ending is the only true sour note in the film (though the lip syncing sequence to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is a touch grating) – it feels pat and easy and panders to the audience. But that issue is minor because for the bulk of the film, the film tells its story well.
Most viewers, however, will note that triumphant performances of Wiig, Hader, and Burrell. Even though their stars are known primarily as comedians, Heyman and Johnson make sure that they push the actors to stretch beyond their respective comfort levels to produce some exciting work. Wiig and Hader have an easy rapport, that goes back to their work together on SNL. It’s a relief that despite the heavy subject matter, the actors are called on to be funny as well. Burrell has a smaller role, but is just as effective as the deeply conflicted Rich. His scenes with Hader are great because both actors manage to create an exchange that feels as if it lasted for 20 years. Wilson is also good and in a welcome cameo, Joanna Gleason does some solid work as a nightmarish mother from hell.
Because it’s the film’s so small, and the actors’ work is so subtle, I don’t see The Skeleton Twins doing all that well during the award season. That’s a shame because it’s a joy to watch Wiig and Hader develop and grow. It reminded me of my earlier review of the second season of The Mindy Project and how its star Mindy Kaling has grown as an actress. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are also great examples of comics who have been able to retain their hilarious personas without remaining static. The Skeleton Twins also proves that Wiig has the potential of being a credible leading lady, who can do more than just Bridesmaids-level comedy. The film also shows that even when things are horrible, there are momentary glimpses of humor.