The rapport between Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig is obvious from their first moment together in The Skeleton Twins, and why shouldn’t it be? Beyond their shared SNL history the two have delivered fantastic performances together in the past, most notably in Adventureland but also on a smaller scale in Paul. That instant chemistry is what is to be expected, but what will come as a shock to many is that it isn’t solely from a comedic standpoint, but that they connect in a film heavy with issues of suicide, abuse, and infidelity.
Wiig has ventured into dramedy territory before, most recently in last year’s underwhelming Girl Most Likely, but right from the start it’s clear The Skeleton Twins is something new for both co-stars. The film begins with estranged siblings Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig) considering suicide. He’s a failed actor living in Los Angeles and dealing with a failed relationship to another man. Maggie’s in New York where she leads a life of dull normalcy, working as a dental assistant and married to the overly-eager Lance (Luke Wilson), described later as a “big Labrador retriever”. It’s a phone call that Milo is in the hospital that stops Maggie from doing herself in, and flying off to LA to check in on him the two speak for the first time in a decade.
The film establishes early on how close they were as children, playing dress up and sharing a love of Halloween with their father. The reunion starts off tense, until Milo breaks the ice with a joke about the book Marley & Me that only those of a similar sense of humor would find funny. Humor is a constant defensive device for both, and after she invites him to stay with her in New York, the return to familiar territory brings back some old, very bad habits. Milo seems to be stalking another gay man (Ty Burrell), until we learn they share a very dark past. Maggie and Lance are attempting to have a child, only he doesn’t know she’s been actively working against it and indulging in a number of romantic affairs.
Considering the years he spent as the flamboyantly homosexual Stefon on SNL, one might expect Hader to go a little overboard. He never turns Milo into a running gag, however, and is secure enough in himself to crack jokes about being the “creepy gay uncle” or a “tragic gay cliché”. Wiig is terrific as a woman incapable of being happy, and always destined to ruin her one shot at a comfortable life. Over time we come to learn about the reasons for Milo and Maggie’s estrangement, including the family’s history of suicide, highlighted by a memorable but sadly undeveloped appearance by their mother, who both siblings loathe with a passion. These broken siblings seem unable to function normally around anybody else, but they find light and laughter in one another’s company. Those are the moments when the film really shines, especially during an impromptu lip-syncing of Journey’s cornball ’80s hit, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. Director Craig Johnson, working with producers Mark and Jay Duplass, deftly balances the weightier scenes with unexpected bursts of humor. Still, the film goes to some disturbing places later on when we see that Maggie and Milo are as capable of being cruel as they are sharing a few laughs.
Because the film never shies away from the desperate depths of its characters, the overly tender and rushed conclusion is jarring. Nothing can completely overcome Hader and Wiig’s excellence in exploring the joys and pains of such a close familial bond. If there was a film that truly puts their SNL past in the rear view mirror, The Skeleton Twins is it.
NOTE: This is an edited version of my review from the Sundance Film Festival.