Okay, I think we’re way past the point where we shouldn’t be surprised when comedic actors succeed in giving strong dramatic performances. Many are stunned when funny people like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler give strong and deeply felt performances in “The Truman Show” and “Punch Drunk Love,” and it’s like they’re saying that they were really prepared for them to be bad because they were working outside of the genre they’ve gained the most recognition for. After all these years, the majority of audiences still believe that dramatic roles are far more challenging than comedic ones, but it’s the other way around. Making people cry is easy, but making people laugh is a lot harder. Frankly I am more stunned when serious dramatic actors give terrific comedic performances because lord knows they take themselves way too seriously.
I bring this up because I just saw “The Skeleton Twins” which stars two of “Saturday Night Live’s” best alumni, Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader. It won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. They play twins who were as close as a brother and sister could be until events like the unexpected death of their father tore them apart. Both actors bring their comedic talents to this sad tale, but they also dig deep into their roles to show us sides of themselves we haven’t seen previously.
When the movie starts, these characters have reached an emotional bottom they can’t seem to dig themselves out of. Milo (Hader) lives in Los Angeles where he is just another out of work actor with very little in the way of career prospects, and he is inconsolable after his latest relationship falls apart. As a result, he sinks into his bathtub and tries to commit suicide. Meanwhile in New York, Maggie (Wiig) is about to take her own life when she is interrupted by a phone call informing her that Milo has beat her to it, except for the fact he was saved from death in the nick of time.
Maggie visits Milo in the hospital, and it marks the first time in a decade they have talked to one another face to face. It’s an awkward reunion as neither is sure what to say to the other, and one of them has to spoil the ending of “Marley & Me” for no good reason. The wounds from childhood are still fresh in their minds, and their mother (played by Joanna Gleason) is no help as she has since become a new-age practitioner who refuses to recognize or even consider the pain her children are enduring. But soon Milo and Maggie realize that in order to fix their lives and let go of the past, they need to repair their relationship with each other first.
Now regardless of the description above, “The Skeleton Twins” is in fact a comedy, or maybe a dramedy is a better description. In a lot of ways it has to be a comedy because Milo and Maggie need to laugh about something or else everything will become too painful to bear. But even though they look to be on the road to recovery, they still have some severe road bumps to travel across which will test them and their broken faith in each other.
We learn that Milo’s first love was his high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell), and it should go without saying that it was a forbidden love which never should have taken place. Nevertheless, Milo still has deep feelings for him and has never gotten past what they shared. He tries to reconnect with Rich by pretending to be a successful actor, but Rich initially resents Milo’s reappearance in his life as he now lives with his girlfriend and son. But this does not deter Milo as he continues to pursue Rich for a relationship which is not the least bit realistic for either of them.
As for Maggie, she looks to be happily married to a wonderful husband in Lance, and they both say that they are ready to start a family. However, Maggie is secretly taking birth control pills behind Lance’s back and has developed a crush on her flirtatious scuba diving instructor who is quite the Australian hunk (is there any other kind?). As well intentioned as she and Milo are, both are indulging in self-destructive behavior and they don’t fully realize the consequences of what they’re doing until the damage has been done.
Like other movies I really like, the characters in “The Skeleton Twins” are refreshingly down to earth and relatable to where they are not all that different from those we know in our own lives. Regardless of whether or not we have had an affair with our high school English teacher or our scuba diving instructor, we have all been at that point where we feel infinitely lost to where we can’t think of how to make our lives better. Furthermore, none of these characters are painted in broad strokes. They all have various layers to their personalities, and there are no clear cut good guys or bad guys to be found among the bunch.
Wiig has long since proven to be a wonderful actress in “Bridesmaids” and “All Good Things,” and her work in “The Skeleton Twins” is the latest example of that. As Maggie, she uses her brilliant comedic skills to great effect but also inhabits the character more than plays her to where we get caught up in the infinite sadness Maggie is trying to outrun day after day. This is especially the case when Maggie is forced to face up to what she has done wrong, and that’s not easy for anyone.
But the most revelatory performance in “The Skeleton Twins” comes from Hader as Milo. I’m honestly not surprised that he is as good as he is here, but it feels like the first time we have seen him in this kind of role. Milo is gay, and this may lead some to believe that Hader will simply resurrect his Stefon character from “SNL” to where we will watch him go to Trash, the meatpacking hot spot where you can meet the Muslim Elvis impersonator Pierre, but he is a lot smarter than that. Hader gives a very nuanced performance throughout, and his story about peaking in high school really choked me up. No one wants to believe that high school is the best time in their lives, but it may be the place where you did your most memorable work.
And just as they proved over the years on “SNL,” Wiig and Hader are quite the team when you put them together. They play off each other brilliantly during the scene in the dentist’s office where they discover the benefits of nitrous oxide which allows their characters to open up in a way they haven’t in years. But that almost doesn’t compare to the movie’s penultimate scene where they lip sync “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship (or Jefferson Starship or Jefferson Airplane or whatever the hell you want to call that band) which proves to be hilariously moving. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, but this movie has me seeing it in a whole new light.
While I’m at it, I do have to give credit to the supporting actors who take roles that could have been stock characters and render them as truly memorable. Luke Wilson is a delight throughout as Lance, the endlessly cheerful husband. Lance could have been completely indifferent to what his wife is going through or just a flat out jerk, but Wilson humanizes this character to where we see that he is truly a good hearted man who wants to be there for his wife but doesn’t know how to help her. Special mention also goes out to Ty Burrell who plays a character that, in real life, we would despise with an intense passion, and he makes Rich an empathetic character who is in his own way just as lost and self-destructive as Milo and Maggie are.
“The Skeleton Twins” does end on a rather abrupt note and leaves a couple of plot threads dangling in a rather unsatisfying manner. Despite that, it is one of those movies in 2014 that has had quite the emotional impact on me. It always feels like a gift when you watch a movie with characters you can relate to, and director Craig Johnson has given us just that. I truly hope that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of so many other big Hollywood releases because it deserves a large audience.
So seriously, no more of this talk of how amazing it is when comedy actors can do drama. Of course they can, and that should go without saying. Don’t tell Hader and Wiig to just stick with comedy because this movie shows that they can pretty much do anything and everything at this point. No pun intended, but nothing is going to stop them now.