Outside of their “Saturday Night Live” work, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig have delivered some of their best performances onscreen together, in “Adventureland” and “Paul” (they even both scored scene-stealing voice cameos in Spike Jonze’s “Her”). Even so, their chemistry in Craig Johnson’s “The Skeleton Twins” is something altogether different: These are serious dramatic roles with dark comedic ingredients that take them out of the farcical realm and allow them to craft fully realized characters. Johnson’s script (co-written by by Mark Heyman), which finds the duo playing estranged twins coping with mutual depressive tendencies, assembles a fairly traditional dramedy that can’t keep pace with the actors’ investment in the material. Nevertheless, “The Skeleton Twins” sticks to its routine by taking an inoffensively gentle look at coping with hard times that gives Hader and Wiig plenty of room to act around the material.
From the first close-ups of their faces, it’s clear that the actors are venturing into new territory: As the gay loner Milo, Hader wears a constant grimace as he pens a pathetic suicide note and attempts to kill himself in his bathtub. That scene is balanced off by the next one, which features Wiig’s equally dour-faced Maggie contemplating a suicide attempt of her own when she receives a call that her brother’s in the hospital. Flying from New York to Los Angeles, where the struggling actor Milo has been waiting tables, Maggie confronts her brother for the first time in a decade and invites him to come home with her. Back in their native terrain, Milo reconnects with a former flame (Ty Burrell) whose past history with Milo remains unclear until later scenes; meanwhile, Milo digs into the tensions simmering in Maggie’s household with her cheery naif of a husband (Luke Wilson), who desperately wants to have a baby with her and doesn’t realize she’s been secretly taking birth control. “I can’t wait to be the creepy gay uncle,” Milo jokes at the dinner table when he hears of their familial aspirations, seeding the uneasiness in the room.
Over the course of the movie, the twins get to know each other again and tussle with their past grievances while bonding over their current ones. The bleak tone sometimes leads to a cerebral quality at odds with the actors’ energy, but at its best Johnson manages to enliven the darker moments of “Skeleton Twins” with sudden bursts of comedic inspiration.
No scene works better than a late middle act moment in which Hader and Wiig lip sync to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” in an initially cheesy bit that eventually blossoms into a wonderfully goofy set piece — and possibly one of their best scenes together ever. But the prominence of this bit also serves to highlight the generally subdued element of many hackneyed developments: Both Maggie’s destructive affair with her scuba diving instructor or Milo’s troublesome attempts to reignite old passions with his former lover come and go with the equivalence of an expositional shrug. Unsurprisingly, it’s only when the duo get together that “The Skeleton Twins” really comes alive.
Hader, whose “SNL” impressions marked one of the few high points in the show’s recent history, never turns his character’s homosexuality into a gag. Instead, he imbues Milo with a softly amusing persona who counteracts his glum tendencies with a playfulness that manifests in charming fashion whenever he’s around his sister, who follows in turn: Her buttoned-up tendencies as an aspiring homemaker belie a latent willingness to act out, and the transformation she undergoes with her sibling’s help gives “The Skeleton Twins” its effective raison d’être.
But make no mistake: The movie has a conventional heartstrings-pulling approach embedded in its bones, and the finale arrives with an obvious and fairly unbelievable climax that reeks of forced sentimentalism. That’s unfortunate, because the penultimate confrontations allow the actors to bring the hints of naturalism visible in their earlier scenes to even greater heights. Judging by Johnson’s previous feature, “True Adolescence,” he’s better at crafting characters with credible problems than finding equally credible ways of exploring them. Fortunately, in the case of “Skeleton Twins,” the actors do the legwork.
Criticwire Grade: B