Wiig And Hader Dig Deep In "The Skeleton Twins"

“Saturday Night Live” veterans Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader headline as the eponymous “Skeleton Twins” in Craig Johnson’s second feature, a dexterous comedy-drama that blends sweetness and sorrow with the touch of a five-star chef. Estranged twins Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) begin the film as avatars of emotional emaciation, unwittingly fighting a duel of desperation that seems certain to end badly. The piece immediately dives headlong into melancholy with Milo interrupting a suicide attempt by his sister with one of his own, inadvertently bringing the two together after a decade of silence.

For much of the film it’s unclear what tore the characters apart, but Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman (“Black Swan”) have a plan, smartly leaving the pair to simmer in their unsolicited reconciliation. Milo is an openly gay Los Angeles transplant whose struggles to find both acting work and romance have led him to the brink. Meanwhile, Maggie has fallen victim to routine with a dull job – dental hygienist – and a dull husband – the blandly agreeable Lance (Luke Wilson). That the film is the first in ages to know what to do with the younger Wilson sibling is one of many signs that Johnson has a good handle on the material.

Wrists bandaged, Milo reluctantly retreats cross-country to Maggie’s house to recover, slowly rediscovering the connection they carried from their mother’s womb into young adulthood. But it’s not simple in the way movies tend to be, with the “Skeleton Twins” unearthing bones of indiscretions past in the process. Milo rekindles a romance with an old flame (Ty Burrell), taking the story in a direction every bit as dark as its starting point, as Maggie uses infidelity as balm for her increasingly irritating marriage.

With every lie they tell each other about their deeply dysfunctional relationships, their own becomes all the more vital. At the halfway mark Johnson fully hands the piece off to his leads and the film shifts into an even higher gear. Starting with a lip-synced performance of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and subsequent moments of silliness between leads, the duo’s flair for improv shines through, smartly using comedy to highlight the surrounding drama. Not only does it help to lighten the mood, but it rounds out the characters – they’re more than just their problems, as bulky as those troubles might be.

Wiig has done dramatic work before – to mixed notices – but this is virgin territory for the typically manic Hader, and he strikes gold throughout. The performance is deeply felt and wryly funny – let us not miss the irony in his first straight role coming as a gay character – and suggests a world of depth beneath an exterior that, to date, has been used almost exclusively for comedy. As far as SNL breakouts go, Hader’s work here is among the best, rivaling that of Wiig in “Bridesmaids” and John Belushi in “Animal House.” Only here, the emphasis is on drama over comedy, inviting a wholly unique career path ahead for Hader.

Craig Johnson shows off a few bad instincts with some inessential narration and overstylized flashbacks – replete with saccharine musical bites – but his aim is true, exquisitely setting the stage for Wiig to reposition her career as a lead and Hader to launch his. As a dark character piece with the occasional big laugh, “The Skeleton Twins” is as much a pleasure to watch as it is to digest once its end credits roll. Wiig is good, Hader is great, and their SNL history pays dividends in a film that wouldn’t work nearly as well with just about any other duo on the marquee.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 12, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions
Director: Craig Johnson
Screenwriter: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman
Starring: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell
MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexuality and drug use)