For whatever reason, comedians have never gotten the same respect as their dramatic counterparts — that is, until they take on more serious material. The road to respect is littered with actors making the transition from comedy to drama (think Steve Carell in “Little Miss Sunshine” or Bill Murray in “Broken Flowers“) and the latest pair to cross over are former-”SNL” stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, who both deliver impressive turns as a pair of depressive siblings in the dramedy “The Skeleton Twins.” Centering on Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader), the film opens with their concurrent, unsuccessful, suicide attempts. Maggie is a dental assistant living in the small New York town she grew up in, while Milo is a struggling actor in LA whose recent breakup sent him off the deep end.
Though the pair have not spoken in 10 years, Milo’s situation brings him back home to stay with his estranged sister, who, unbeknownst to him, is going through problems of her own. Chief of which seems to be her marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson), a good natured and well meaning puppy dog of a husband, who nevertheless eats pizza pockets, wears shoes with toes and generally fails to excite her. Milo’s own issues are complicated after he starts to dig into the past and contacts an old ex (Ty Burrell), whose relationship left lasting scars. While initially the reasons for the siblings’ estrangement remain mysterious, they’re slowly revealed over the course of the film as the pair spend more time together and old resentments begin to reemerge.
Featuring no frills direction from Craig Johnson (“True Adolescents“), visually the film can come off looking a little flat at times with the limited palette echoing the gloomy disposition of the characters. The script by the director and Mark Heyman (co-writer of “Black Swan“) feels slight and a little too familiar, once again featuring characters who bring their problems on themselves, but tonally it attempts a more adventurous balancing act. Wavering not always comfortably between dark drama and darker comedy — Milo’s suicide note reads “To whom it may concern. See you later. :( ” — the film is nearly saved by its two central performances.
Because of their years of work together on “Saturday Night Live,” Hader and Wiig have a very credible chemistry as siblings and a shorthand that works well for their characters. Arguably two of the funniest performers ever to appear on “SNL,” some may be surprised to Wiig and Hader taking on such difficult material. Wiig’s sensitive turn comes as less of a shock as even in broader films like “Bridesmaids” or “Girl Most Likely,” there are moments that show the actress is eager to reveal more vulnerable aspects of herself as a performer (not to mention her much more reserved persona offscreen). Hader has been picking up more kudos for his work here, which he aces, but that may be due in part to his simply never having taken on a role like this before.
It may not always work as a drama but “The Skeleton Twins” proves to be a fine showcase for Wiig and Hader, showing they are both capable of dramatic material. Maggie and Milo both lighten up a bit as the film goes on and the picture really comes to life when it allows for some humor. Many of the best moments in the film are centered around putting these two old friends in a room and letting them play. One involves the pair getting fucked up on Nitrous-oxide, while another is an incredible lip syncing sequence set to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Ironically, it’s the melancholy atmosphere of the film that gives these moments of happiness some resonance because you know where these characters started from. While the performances may resonate, the film itself may be too Sundance-by-numbers to leave a lasting impression. [C+]