It is difficult to not get typecast in Hollywood. If an actor is particularly good at comedy, it is hard for that actor to make the break to drama. It is also difficult for many actors to make the switch from television to film. So when you see a film like "The Skeleton Twins" starring two actors most famous for their television comedy, you might go in with a bit of trepidation. Those fears were quickly erased when I realized both Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig were perfectly cast. The transition should be so easy for everyone.
Milo (Hader) is a depressed wannabee actor living in Los Angeles, who happens to be gay. After a botched suicide attempt, his sister, Maggie (Wiig) flies out from her upstate New York to see him and care for him. Milo is initially surprised because they haven't seen each other in ten years. Maggie insists that Milo come back home with her, recover and get back on his feet. Milo really can't say no, so he goes back to his hometown and meets Maggie's husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). Milo also looks up his old high school English teacher (Ty Burrell) who now works at a bookstore, has a 16-year-old son and a new fiancee. Maggie does everything a caring sister should do, but she isn't in such great shape either. The more time they spend with each other, the more they get on each other's nerves and the more they relearn to push all of the same buttons.
Directed by Craig Johnson and co-written by Johnson and Mark Heyman ("Black Swan", "The Wrestler"), "The Skeleton Twins" deftly mixes very dramatic material with more light-hearted moments to create a very real portrait of two adult siblings forced to live and learn about each other once again.
Initially, I was a little concerned about some of the moments shown in the trailer. Sure they are funny, but how would these clips - Hader lip-syncing to an '80s ballad, trying to get Wiig to respond, etc. - blend into a more dramatic tale? Would these moments draw us out of the narrative for the sake of giving the veteran "Saturday Night Live" cast mates something familiar to connect with and something for their fans to recognize? These moments come close to sticking out like a sore thumb. But they help to serve other purposes, which makes them more integrated into the story of these two siblings. Because Hader and Wiig worked together for so many years, this scene seems like a bit of a reunion or a flashback. It is, but it also seems like something siblings might do. There are a couple of other moments which also threaten to do the same thing, but these sequences also serve to illustrate their relationship as siblings. Given Milo and Maggie's upbringing (a cameo by Joanna Gleason as Mom helps explain a lot) you expect them to have a communication shorthand, little inside jokes, that type of thing. As close as these moments come to derailing the dramatic momentum, they work more than they don’t and help establish their relationship.
When the movie moves into full-drama, both Hader and Wiig show off some acting chops I never would have imagined they had. Both are extremely funny and each proves they are equally adept at drama. Hader portrays Milo's roller coaster of emotions - as the film begins, he makes a suicide attempt - and he gradually becomes more accepting of Maggie's intervention and his new environment. Still feeling incredibly vulnerable, he starts to drink, starts to look for some male companionship, looks up an his former high-school English teacher (Burrell). Of course, as Milo spends more time with Maggie, he starts to push her buttons, as she pushes his, and they start to fight more.
Hader brings a lot of natural angst to the role and makes Milo believable. Every moment, you get the sense Milo is turning over all of the ramifications of every action. This doesn’t usually work and he causes problems for everyone in his life. But when he does figure things out, you can see the mature adult Milo has become. You also realize how exhausting this must be for the depressed man.
Wiig also does a great job. In the last year or so, she has appeared in a few, little-seen films, taking on more dramatic roles. Of course, people flock to her comedies. Now, in "The Skeleton Twins", she has a role in an independent film that will probably enjoy a wider audience and will allow more people to see her very good performance. Hopefully her fans will recognize that she can do a great job in and support both genres. Her performance is that good and should change most viewers’ perception of her work.
Maggie is the older sister who, on the surface, has everything together. But as we get to know more about her, we realize that she is putting on a good act for Lance and everyone else in her life. Now that Milo is living in their house, the cracks begin to show. Milo knows his sister and can tell when she is putting on a different persona and doesn't let her get away with it. But his presence also brings up bad memories, some of which she has repressed to present herself as a sort of mini-Martha Stewart. She spent years creating this facade and now that she and Lance have been married for two years, she continues on, because it is what he expects.
The other recent example I can recall of an actor breaking through one genre to do a good job in another is Will Forte who co-starred in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" as Bruce Dern's son. It is also a very good, eye-opening performance. But Hader and Wiig are more prominent in "Twins", so their performances seem bigger and better, in a way.
Luke Wilson plays Lance, a nice enough guy, but clearly not the right match for Maggie. Outdoorsy and less complicated, Lance enjoys simple pleasures and is a more typical guy’s guy, exactly the type of person Maggie never thought she would be with. He seems to be clueless enough, happily living with a woman who is afraid to be herself.
Ty Burrell, so funny on "Modern Family", also does a nice job with his dramatic work.
Joanna Gleason has a particularly memorable cameo as Maggie and Milo's mom. As soon as she speaks, the source of a lot of their problems becomes clear. Sure, Maggie and Milo’s dad committed suicide, but their mother…
Director Craig Johnson has been working on this film for about a decade and this level of commitment is evident in every frame of the film. He took the germ of an idea, something he read about all those years ago, co-wrote a screenplay, injecting his ideas and thoughts into it, building it into the thoughtful, well-rounded screenplay it is now. Working on a budget of $1 million (which is pretty paltry in this day and age), he corralled an impassioned group of people to make this film.
“The Skeleton Twins” is imperfect, but in a way, this adds to the charm and makes it an immensely watchable and very moving film.