Hader and Wiig give a beating heart to ‘Skeleton Twins’

By Alex Frail

(Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)
(Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

When I asked my friends to watch “The Skeleton Twins” with me, they wondered if it’d be too scary for them.

Director Craig Johnson’s new comedy-drama is no horror flick, but it possesses an uncommon dose of suspense while mixing sarcasm as sharp as the shards of glass scattered throughout the film. “The Skeleton Twins” transcends both comedy and drama through a heartbreaking examination of the bond between brother and sister.

Johnson’s film stars Bill Hader as Milo and Kristen Wiig as Maggie. Milo – a failed actor whose boyfriend recently left him – attempts suicide by slicing his wrists. Johnson cuts to Maggie as she stands above a sink with an outstretched hand filled with pills. A call interrupts her suicide, and as she balances the phone in one hand and pills in the other, one can’t help but recall “The Matrix’s” seminal moment when Neo chooses between blue pill and red pill.

The shot of Maggie is one of many stylish moments in “The Skeleton Twins.” Foreshadowing pops up everywhere. One of Johnson’s first shots tracks a skeleton puppet as it spirals downward in a pool, a foreboding image as we enter the lives of suicidal siblings. Then we fast-forward to Milo as he dips into his bathtub, which slowly clouds with blood.

The narrative details their reunion after 10 years apart. When they settle uneasily back into each other’s lives, they realize that life didn’t pan out as either planned and demons haunt them at every turn.

Both Saturday Night Live alums, Hader and Wiig are far flung from their SNL characters that we adored over the years. There’s no trace of Stefon or Vinny Vedecci in Milo. Instead, he’s a bitter nihilist and his emotions eviscerated from years of torment and disappointment. Even his suicide note at the beginning screams indifference. Similarly, Wiig’s reserved Maggie bears no resemblance to Target Lady or Gilly. Both have found a new set of dramatic skills.

Hader and Wiig’s chemistry is palpable. “The Skeleton Twins” would still be excellent without it, but their bond leaps off the screen, whether during a muted exchange in the hospital, a manic dance to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” or a screaming match in which they pick each other to pieces. The actors never cease to be compelling.

The script, which was co-written by Johnson and Mark Heyman, delivers a wildly engrossing tale about the shadows that parents can cast over their children. Countless moments shed light on their past. Their dad met a tragic end, which plants the seeds of suicide in both of his children, who are left alone by a flighty mother.

Despite a strong script, praise for Milo’s layered character falls unequivocally on Hader’s shoulders. The actor, whose filmography consists mainly of quirky supporting roles in films like “Adventureland” and “Superbad,” wrings both tears and laughs throughout the film. When Milo deflects personal questions with biting sarcasm, he gets a quick laugh, but it’s only a thin veneer over a reservoir of despair. His toast to being the “creepy gay uncle” to Maggie and Lance’s (Luke Wilson) baby only seems like a joke; Hader undercuts the line’s humorous irony with fathoms-deep depression.

We can’t forget Wiig. Her performance protects Maggie from a vapid Hollywood-type as well, since she’s ostensibly the stable sister who will help her brother fix his life. Thanks to Wiig, Maggie is so much more. As Milo recovers, her stability unspools, and she reveals just as many skeletons in her closet as her brother does.

Ty Burrell, light-years away from his character Phil Dunphy in “Modern Family,” stars in a supporting role as Rich, a small bookshop owner who shares a history with Milo. When Milo first approaches him, Rich seems like a sympathetic man, reasonably hesitant to reopen his connection with the troubled Milo. Johnson and Heyman’s script, relentlessly refusing to be a derivative dramedy, sheds light on his skeletons as well.

The direction and performances are all on point, but the constant shifting tone bogs down the script’s efficiency. At points, it leaps between euphoric and funny to cold and bitter in the space of a single cut. The shifts make for an occasionally jarring experience.

Imperfections aside, the film’s celebration of an intimate sibling bond relieves the narrative’s bleak obsession with suicide. It wisely sheds the crazy family archetype (think “This is Where I Leave You,” or any holiday film) and gives the spotlight to brother and sister alone.

And Hader and Wiig shine in this spotlight. At one point, Milo says what a good team he and Maggie make. Perhaps it wasn’t meant as a self-aware line, but it sums up the acting team as well. They cloak “The Skeleton Twins” with tears, laughter and painstaking humanity.

Alexander Frail can be reached at [email protected]