Most movies feel like movies. Other times, great movies often feel more voyeuristic, as if we are simply peeking in on real people, dealing with real issues and acting like people we might have encountered in our lives, or, perhaps even reflecting back a bit of ourselves. The Skeleton Twins (opening today) is the latter sort of movie, a touching contemplation of human emotion and the power of family bond. It’s made great not only due to its subject matter, but on how it so surprisingly plays with our expectations.
Take for example, its cast, and more specifically its two leads. Real-life great friends and former Saturday Night Live stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig star, alongside the likes of Luke Wilson and Modern Family star, Ty Burrell. Reading that byline, you might think you are in for a star-studded comedy, but The Skeleton Twins is firmly a real-life drama. Because of Hader and Wiig’s palpable chemistry and their strong sense of comedic timing, they craft wondrous, memorable characters and breathe life into each and every scene.
Hader and Wiig play estranged siblings, Milo and Maggie, who have not seen each other in nearly ten years. When we first glimpse Milo, he struggles with writing a suicide note before trying to take his own life, with music blaring in his tiny apartment. Across the states, we find Maggie desperately gazing at herself in a bathroom mirror, gripping a handful of pills, looking to do something just as drastic. Her phone rings, and she is informed that her brother tried to take his own life, but survived when a neighbor called in a noise complaint.
The dire situation puts the two in touch with each other, as Maggie tries to help Milo get back on his feet. She allows him to move in with her and her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson) a too-good-to-be-true man’s man who is nothing but supportive and maybe a bit dense. Wilson does great work here playing what in essence, should have been a two-dimensional caricature.
Too many films tell us everything we need to know up front, but this one unravels slowly. Milo and Maggie have a deep, complicated relationship, but like many of us, they look back at a time during their “glory days” of childhood, when they used to dress up and celebrate Halloween with their dad, who seems to have died suddenly right around the time the two stopped speaking. They both sport skeleton tattoos, a physical reminder of a time when things were good. Things are no longer good.
Desperate for human connection, Milo looks up a former lover, Rich (Ty Burrell), who had an inappropriate relationship with Milo years ago (Rich was a high school teacher, with Milo being underage at the time). He also attempts to reconnect with their eccentric mother (Joanna Gleason), and once we meet her, we understand even more just how Maggie and Milo have come so far and perhaps why they are so emotionally unstable. Maggie and her husband are trying to get pregnant, or are they? The put-together Maggie is just as fragile as Milo, dealing with her own set of insecurities, and it doesn’t help that her new scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook) is giving her the eye.
What we are left with is a rich human story, a legitimate “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” family drama. Oh, there are plenty of laughs as well, as Hader and Wiig remind us from time to time of their comedic roots, but these laughs are hitting different notes than we’re used to from these sketch comedy geniuses. Juxtaposed with the serious stuff their characters are dealing with, director Craig Johnson never falls for any conventional trappings.
We had inklings of thoughts that Wiig was on the verge of a dramatic breakthrough, but who knew about Bill Hader? The Skeleton Twins is sad, happy, powerful and raw, featuring one of the best ensemble performances of the year. And it’s a damn good film.
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook
Co-Written and Directed by Craig Johnson (True Adolescents)
Opens locally on Friday, Sept 26, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli’s “Star Ratings:”
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time