THE SKELETON TWINS Review: Cleaning Out the Closet
In my recent DVD Verdict review of Hateship Loveship, I noted that Kristen Wiig was making her mark as a female Saturday Night Live alum exploring her dramatic acting abilities, alongside such male notables as Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Murray, as well as Will Forte, who turned heads in 2013’s Nebraska. As the talented actress looks to make her second significant dramatic mark, it also looks like she’s bringing new blood with her: 2005 SNL classmate Bill Hader.
The comedian, who ended his television tenure in 2013 (one year after Wiig bowed), was best known for quirky, memorable characters, like the fabulously gay New York correspondent Stefon. In The Skeleton Twins, Hader revisists quirky and gay, but the darkness he brings to the role is as far away from Stefon as he can get.
Hader plays Milo, a struggling actor who, as the film opens, attempts suicide. The hospital calls his twin sister, Maggie (Wiig), who, as her phone rings, is also contemplating taking her own life. The call stops her. Once Milo is cleared for release, the L.A. denizen spends some time in his old hometown in upstate New York, living with his sister and her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson).
The siblings have been estranged for a decade, and their cautious early steps towards becoming reacquainted also include some intense self-evaluation of their individual and combined pasts. The siblings share a tense reunion with their mother (Joanna Gleason); Maggie considers decisions made that might affect her marriage; and Milo visits Rich (Ty Burrell), an older man from his past. Through it all, each sibling struggles to be fully honest with the other and with themselves.
Have no illusions. The Skeleton Twins might star two of SNL‘s funniest ex-castmembers (at least in recent years), but it is a devastating drama about secrets, relationships, and the frailty of the human condition.
Its foundation is a wonderfully layered screenplay co-written by Mark Heyman and director Craig Johnson. After a brief flashback to the twins’ childhood that establishes the significance of the title (and subtly illustrates how close they once were), the story wastes no time in creating the crisis that forces the estranged siblings together. From that point forward, the story delicately unfolds and provides the right amount of insight necessary for the story to work. As characters (not many) are gradually introduced, so too are details from the lives of those characters that offer a clearer and clearer picture of the dysfunction the twins suffer from.
It’s incredibly deft storytelling. While there are several revelatory moments in the film, those moments are never played for melodrama; they are organically revealed in a way that might come as a shock, but never for shock’s sake. It’s difficult to elaborate further, as to offer an example is to provide a spoiler, really. Even though details early in the film are small and subtle, if you consider them thoroughly enough, you might see what’s coming. That’s not to say the film is predictable; it’s not. This is a case of fearing an expected outcome, not simply knowing what’s coming.
Of course, a great story is nothing without a solid cast, and this cast is as solid as you can ask for. Gleason is perfect in her bit part as the twins’ obliviously self-centered mother, and in his key supporting role, Burrell does a fine job as the conflicted man from Milo’s past, at times both sympathetic and repulsive.
Wilson is excellent as Maggie’s devoted husband. His ernest ways get very close to being schmaltzy, but Wilson manages to hold just short of that line quote well; he’s more reminiscent of a character from a Christopher Guest film – a caricature so lovable that he must be believed.
But the film is nothing without powerhouse performances from Wiig and Hader. As the sister scarred by her past and the wife uncertain of her present, Wiig builds upon the great feeling of trapped desperation she showed glimpses of in Hateship Loveship. Unlike the character in that film, though, Maggie isn’t as quirky and her situation is far more realistic, two differences that Wiig seems to thrive on here. But Wiig’s greatest contribution to the film is giving Hader everything he needs to shine. And shine he does.
This is no easy role. Milo has a haunted past – both within his family and without – a stalled career, and a failed suicide attempt. He has no romantic relationship of note. And he is forced to stay with his sister who, at least on the surface, has a wonderful life: marriage, house, etc. She’s even trying to get pregnant, suggesting that she has plans for her future. Milo has nothing. Not even dignity. Hader finds that sweet-spot of a guy trying to reconcile it all while also trying to repair his long-fractured relationship with his once-close sister. Milo also uses humor as a defense mechanism, but never in that zany SNL vein. The performance invokes memories of Robin Williams’ early dramatic turns: the skill to play dramatic, but the gift to restrain the humor.
(The film has funny moments – it must with these two – and they are a welcome relief, breaking the tension and providing a brief respite from the intense drama.)
As for the pair together, their chemistry is dazzling. Their years together on SNL – years where they met and studied each other, and grew close, and learned to trust one another – pay off in ways they probably never considered in the early days. I cannot imagine them playing a couple, but they are simply perfect as siblings.
The film isn’t without its flaws, though, most of which appear as holes in the story. The siblings’ estrangement is never explained. Sometimes this sort of detail isn’t necessary, but because Johnson repeatedly reminds us of their closeness as children, explaining what ruined the relationship is required. Mom, no matter how charming Gleason plays her, is presented as a non-caring mother straight out of central casting. The one scene she is in is good, but it could have been left out entirely with an explanation of their mother’s circumstances instead.
Although the ending is satisfying (how’s that for vague?), the film’s big climax strains credulity.
History might one day write that The Skeleton Twins was a critical entry in the careers of both Wiig and Hader. Both of them do the best dramatic work they’ve ever done, and if they do go on to long film careers (a la Williams, who also got his start on TV), their names will be on a short list of successful comedians who made it big in drama. They will also be on an even shorter list of SNL alums who can claim the same.