'The Skeleton Twins'
If nothing else, ‘The Skeleton Twins’ offers definitive proof that strong performances can save almost any movie, especially a comedy (even of the serio-comic variety). The story and style of the film were indie clichés a decade ago. Yet simply seeing Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader exploit their ‘Saturday Night Live’ history and audience familiarity as siblings while also digging to deeper and darker places as performers than they ever have before is more than enough to rescue the flick from its failings.
Our story opens with the titular twins each about to commit suicide on opposite sides of the country. He (Bill Hader) follows through, but she (Kristin Wiig) doesn’t. However, she crosses the country to visit the hospital and convince Hader to follow her back to the east coast while he recovers. They were close as kids, but haven’t spoken in years for mysterious reasons that can only be revealed in the third act for closure.
The reunion is uneasy at first. There’s plenty of bickering and the mutual mocking of Wiig’s dopey jock husband (Luke Wilson, who’s funnier and more alive onscreen here than he’s been since ‘Old School’). Soon, they’re impossibly close again – cracking jokes, staging sing-alongs and eventually sharing secrets. Unfortunately, that secret sharing ends up involving the affair that Wiig starts with her scuba diving instructor and a rekindled old romance that Hader slides into with a surprising figure from his past. It’s sad. It’s funny. It goes dark places, but always with a positive message in mind. If you’ve seen a comedy from Sundance since Wes Anderson started spreading his influence and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ toned it down to the mainstream, you’ll know exactly what to expect.
Writer/director Craig Johnson wants to make a big, meaningful movie. He fills his film with elements that are typically big and meaningful in serio-comedies. Suicide, infidelity, statutory rape, addiction, failure, lies and life lessons all appear in the screenplay with clockwork precision. Truthfully, it can all get a bit tiresome and is always more exhausting than emotional. He also shoots in a wistful style with gently satirical middle American art direction to put audiences within a very familiar form of Sundance filmmaking. Sadly, all of the big themes and devices that Johnson exploits are far too familiar to register. This is the type of movie that you can map out entirely after 15 minutes of screen time because everything has been so clearly set up to convention. That’s not to say that the movie is necessarily bad, just that it’s riding through a well-worn path with little hope for bumps or surprises along the way. Thankfully, Johnson knows how to write funny dialogue and stunt-cast to perfection.
There’s a moment in the middle of the movie when Wiig is down and Hader is able to bring her back through a ludicrous lip-sync duet to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” On paper, it’s a cringe-worthy scene. However, Wiig and Hader not only milk the most from their comedic ability to make it hilarious, they commit to their characters enough for it to feel like a shared secret between twins with a warmth and full backstory left unsaid. The way they save that scene is how they save the movie encapsulated in three fantastic minutes.
We all know both performers are hilarious and they do it here again. The surprise comes from the depths of their performances. Both were always clearly talented actors based on the variety of their ‘SNL’ characters, but whether or not they’d ever get to exploit those talents in anything other than broad comedies was the question. Here they get that chance together, and even if the movie isn’t perfect, both Hader and Wiig are. These roles could have been one-note sad-sacks with one-liners, but Hader and Wiig find real damaged little people in the script and bring them to life. Their shared history helps sell the creepy twin closeness, while their natural talent nails the rest.
Hopefully, both Wiig and Hader get more roles like these together and separately. If they can save a movie like ‘The Skeleton Twins’ from itself this easily, just imagine what they could do with a decent script catered to their talents.