SNL vets Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reunite for drama The Skeleton Twins, a film that’s all about their sibling chemistry, says MacDara Conroy
Reuniting the comedic pairing of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, it’s perhaps unavoidable that The Skeleton Twins will get lumbered with the dreaded Saturday Night Live tag, which frankly does more harm than good: for every Wayne’s World or Blues Brothers (is that it, just two?) there’s a Coneheads, A Night at the Roxbury, or a Blues Brothers 2000. So let’s be thankful that other than bringing back together two of its leading lights of recent years, there’s no other connection with the show, or its silver screen curse. (Add it to the list after Will Forte in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.)
If anything, The Skeleton Twins is the latest example of mumblecore, that painfully hipster genre du jour that rehashes ’90s Sundance relationship-drama ennui with a twist of Dogme 95, some added facial hair and a Pabst Blue Ribbon. But no, that tag is just as ill-fitting, for aside from the involvement of the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair; Jeff, Who Lives at Home) as producers, this is a fairly mainstream venture: the production values are too high, the script, direction and editing too assured, the acting too capital-A. Well I say fairly mainstream; though marketed as a comedy-drama, the subject matter is quite bleak, in that turn-of-the-century Sundance way, and the humour (yes, there is some humour, as the trailer betrays) is mostly incidental.
The film opens on Hader’s character Milo – gay, alone, a failed actor – attempting suicide in his bathtub on one side of the country, followed by the hospital interrupting his twin sister Maggie (Wiig) in her own moment with a handful of pills on the other. Jolted out of her spiral, Maggie surprises Milo with a visit after 10 years without speaking, for reasons that are bound to unfold as such stories go – but not before a change of scene for Milo as he moves in with his sister and her puppy dog of a husband, laid back Lance (Luke Wilson, at his Luke-Wilsoniest), back in the twins’ home town. This seems like a good idea at the time, but things start to unravel as Milo surprises an old acquaintance (Ty Burrell), digging up history best left buried, while Maggie embarks on a self-destructive affair with her hunky Scuba diving teacher.
So yeah, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before; Sundance paint-by-numbers even. But The Skeleton Twins is really all about its central characters, and Wiig and Hader – as the titular brittle brother-sister pair – do a bang-up job. Together, their sibling chemistry is undeniable, no doubt a vestige of their time served in the SNL trenches. In a good move by co-writer/director Craig Johnson, many of their scenes together feel spontaneous and improvised as they riff off each other with inside-jokey barbs, at once cutting and affectionate.
Yet while they light up the screen together, when apart they exude the right kind of vulnerability – particularly Wiig, who’s an underrated dramatic actor, far better here than in any of her post-SNL comedic roles. Hader too, though too knowingly the gay cliché (he is straight, as it happens), brings out the pathos in Milo’s lost soul. And Burrell, so hilarious as the hapless dad in Modern Family, should be in contention for best supporting actor when awards season comes round for his turn as the conflicted Rich.
These stand-out performances trump some obvious issues with the inevitability of the plot, and the odd chasteness of its gay characters, more Will & Grace than Queer As Folk. But in spite of these problems, and the darkness of its tone that will be off-putting to some, The Skeleton Twins is such a likeable film, with genuinely drawn characters that are easy to warm to, that it’s sure to linger longer than most of its ilk.
The Skeleton Twins opens nationwide on Friday November 7th