For whatever reason, comedians have never received the same degree of respect as their dramatic counterparts —that is, until they take on more serious material. The road to critical esteem 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 ”Saturday Night Live” stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, both delivering impressive turns as a pair of depressive siblings in the dramedy “The Skeleton Twins.” The film opens with concurrent, unsuccessful, suicide attempts from the two: Maggie (Wiig) is a dental assistant living in the small New York town she grew up in, while Milo (Hader) 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 sister, who unbeknownst to him is going through problems of her own, chiefly revolving around her marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson), a good natured 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). 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“), the film looks 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, in which characters bringing problems on themselves, but tonally it attempts a more adventurous balancing act. Wavering uncomfortably between dark drama and darker comedy —Milo’s suicide note reads “To whom it may concern. See you later. :( ”— the film is redeemed by those two central performances.
Because of their years of work together on “Saturday Night Live,” Hader and Wiig have a chemistry/ physical shorthand between them that works well for their characters. Arguably two of the funniest performers ever to appear on “SNL,” it may be surprising to see Wiig and Hader taking on such difficult material. Wiig’s sensitive turn comes as less of a shock as even broader films like “Bridesmaids” or “Girl Most Likely” include moments showing the actress revealing 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, due in part to his 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 dramatic performers. Maggie and Milo both lighten up a bit as the film goes on, and the picture really comes to life when the film loosens up. Many of the film’s best moments center 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. While the performances may resonate, the film itself may be too Sundance-by-numbers to leave a lasting impression. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.