It’s been the year for finding tender drama in unexpected places. Obvious Child took chances by mixing broad comedy and the sensitive topic of abortion; Boyhood impressed us with its directorial vision; and Locke held us in an emotional vice grip for its duration despite its single setting and character. Who says cinematic innovation is passé?
The Skeleton Twins is not in the same league as those three, but writer-director Craig Johnson, with just his second feature, has managed to cobble together a surprisingly touching, if not particularly original, dramedy from pieces that are more accustomed to forming a purely comic jigsaw. Born from the murky, mirthy soup of Saturday Night Live, which belches up more crap than cleverness, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig work well with each other and with Johnson’s script, using chemistry and charm to cover up the film’s failings.
The two SNL alums play twins Maggie and Milo, who were close when growing up—thanks in part to their loving but fatally flawed father. But when he died—and with no real love from their mother (Joanna Gleason)—the siblings drifted as far apart as the places they chose to live: she in their hometown in upstate New York and he in Los Angeles, seeking actorly fame and an escape from his “tragic gay cliché” of a life. After they endure 10 years without speaking, it finally takes a shared moment of trauma to force a reunion.
The Skeleton Twins perhaps derives its name from the characters’ preoccupation with death and a reoccurring image of a childhood toy, which, though imaginative in a Day of the Dead way, seems a bit too macabre for children. Yet the entire film is darker and more twisted than you might expect, in alternatingly comic and brutally painful ways. There’s the twins’ relationship itself (which often lurches from closeness to repulsion), Maggie’s too-perfect marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson) and Milo’s involvement with his former high-school teacher, played perfectly by Ty Burrell, who almost single-handedly saves the film from drifting toward amateurism in the second half.
“Maybe we were doomed from the beginning,” Maggie speculates. “I mean, it’s not like Dad was Mr. Sunshine. Sometimes I think all our problems came directly from him, but a lot of the good stuff did too. … He told us to stick together no matter what. God, what the hell happened to us?”
Twins works best when it tries to answer Maggie’s question dramatically instead of comically. It helps that Hader is surprisingly up to the task, turning in probably his best performance. He outshines Wiig, who despite some honest moments and one scene of genuine, seemingly improvisational humor, relies too heavily on her usual deadpan, under-the-breath delivery. Despite that mediocrity, the film works because of its successful pacing, sense of purpose and strong forward motion—in Johnson’s directing, if not the siblings’ lives—which make Twins just interesting enough to always keep us wondering what skeleton is in the next closet.
The Skeleton Twins (R)
Dir. Craig Johnson; writ. Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman; feat. Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason
Opens Sept 26 at Santikos Bijou
★★★ (out of 5 stars)