Director: Craig Johnson
Runtime: 93 minutes
In their tenure on Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig were two of the show's most consistently exciting, vibrant performers, even when they fell back on reliable characters to generate a laugh. Yet, beyond SNL, the two have also proven themselves capable of finding consistent work on the big screen, although in Hader's case it's mostly meant supporting roles in ensemble comedies. And, ever since Bridesmaids, Wiig has struggled to find a comic or dramatic (or tragicomic) vehicle with a strong enough script to show off some potential hidden range. For those who have been following the two actors since their respective departures from late night, the wait is now over. In Craig Johnson's debut film The Skeleton Twins, Hader and Wiig have finally found roles that play perfectly to their strengths as comedians, while simultaneously allowing them to flex their heretofore unseen dramatic muscles.
Though pushed mostly as a dark comedy, Twins' opening gets off to a particularly heavy start. In Los Angeles, failed actor Milo (Hader) attempts suicide. Back in New York, dental associate Maggie (Wiig) is just about to swallow a handful of pills, only to be interrupted by a phone call informing her of Milo's near brush with death. Going from coast to coast, Maggie comes to take Milo back home with her for the time being, even though the pair haven't seen or spoken to each other in a decade.
Once the basic relationships and plot mechanisms are in place, Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman (Black Swan, of all things) let the rest of Twins unfold in tightly controlled emotional swings. Maggie and Milo's is left to go through long-delayed growing pains on its own, without any overly complicated story elements to get in the way. From a structural point of view, this can leave the shifts in tone feeling a bit abrupt. A truly joyous scene involving lip syncing is followed almost immediately by a setback in the relationship. While the back and forth does a solid job of capturing the touch and go relationship between the siblings, it can make for a somewhat jarring viewing experience (one that makes the slim runtime feel a bit longer than it is).
At worst, however, all that The Skeleton Twins really needed was a little bit of restructuring. Otherwise, Johnson and Heyman's writing creates an authentic and compelling sibling bond. Their work, highlighted by Johnson's deft, unfussy directing, touches on myriad emotional issues, and never goes too deep or too light in execution. For a film that nearly begins with both protagonists offing themselves, The Skeleton Twins is often quite buoyant, even in its most unpleasant moments.
The main attraction here, however, is to see Wiig and Hader do something genuinely new as performers, even as they engage in some purely goofy behavior. Their years as SNL co-stars serves them well when it comes to chemistry, as the two are instantly believable as siblings. They joke, tease, bicker, and even explode at each other, and every bit of it rings true. Both faces are so recognizable as those belonging to comedians, yet both are equally capable of communicating frustration, guilt, and sorrow. Wiig is especially impressive as the conflicted Maggie, juggling Milo's arrival along with her goodie two shoes husband Lance (Luke Wilson, charming and low key), with a quiet effortlessness.
Even at its most grim, The Skeleton Twins retains a vague sense of hope (albeit without an ounce of gooey sentimentality). Johnson isn't afraid to get to some uncomfortable issues, as well as conflicts that don't come to an easy or pleasant resolution. Much like Boyhood (on a much, much smaller scale), Twins is a study of life's messiness at all ages. Its scope may not be as broad, nor its impact as profound, yet it's still a rewarding (and hugely promising) debut with a beating - albeit acid-tinged - heart at its core.