I don’t want to say Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig “won” this most recent era of SNL, but (with apologies to Fred Armisen) I’m not sure that anyone else was able to display such a wide range of comedic skills that were so naturally suited for the show’s tried-and-true format. Though at the same time, Hader and Wiig both seem to have such distinct and offbeat personas that it’s been hard to say what exactly their post-SNL years will hold for them. In movies, Hader’s so far been relegated almost exclusively to playing bit parts, except of course for his lead voice-work as a guy who gets smited by God with a plague of fried food (I think that’s what those movies are about, right?) And judging from Wiig’s first few projects since leaving Studio 8H, she’s been more inclined to take her talents to low-key indie projects, though none of them so far have gotten a ton of acclaim. So with The Skeleton Twins it’s been nice to see a film that not only puts them both front and center, but also makes full use of their comedic (and dramatic) range.
The subject of suicide is a big part of The Skeleton Twins and its titular siblings’ lives, and suitably enough it starts with the attempted suicide of Milo (Bill Hader). His sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig), hasn’t found herself in a much happier place, but nonetheless takes it upon herself to let Milo come home and stay with her and her likably boring husband (Luke Wilson, who does likably boring just about as well as anybody). This then devolves into the two of them coming to terms with their past, a lot of which has to do with the mistakes they’ve made since high school, as well as their shared daddy issues. Surprisingly, The Skeleton Twins manages to pack quite a bit of plot development into what is essentially a stripped down character study. Which sometimes feels a little forced, and especially when compared to another recent indie that centers on two characters like Love Is Strange, which gives itself just enough plot to let it’s characters breath and exist in the movie’s space.
However, this movie still gives its two lead actors quite a bit to play with, since despite having a pretty consistent laugh rate, the film is just as consistently unafraid to go in darker directions. Hader in particular is somewhat of a revelation here, because sure, I’ve always loved the guy and thought there’ve been few performers to come onto the scene in the last few years that are as naturally funny as him. But I was caught off guard by how well he was able to tap into the more tragic elements of his character with an undeniable amount of authenticity. Wiig admittedly has the less showy part, since she’s playing the character who (relatively speaking) has her shit together, but I think she does a good job of internalizing the fact that quite the opposite is true. But most of all, it’s just fun to see these two play off of each other, and it’s additionally nice to see a movie that values the codependence of sibling relationships instead of just making them yell at each other in every scene (which is what I assume This Is Where I Leave You is like).
On first glance, it might be easy to look at a movie like The Skeleton Twins and instantly drop it into the Sundance dramedy bullshit pile, but I think the movie for the most point avoids this by never allowing itself to unravel into a mushy crowdpleaser. That said, though this story is obviously about two significantly damaged people, I could have used maybe one or two less overt character quirks from both of them. Also, there’s a self-absorbed mother character who shows up at one point, and does feel a bit like a stock Sundance character. But apart from that, The Skeleton Twins is quite good at turning conventions on it’s ear through it’s casting (which also includes Ty Burrell playing off of his inherent dad-ness), while also proving that whoever said “suicide is painless” was probably a dumb child who didn’t know what he was talking about.