Kristen Wiig became famous for her outrageously funny performances on Saturday Night Live, but she’s shown enough by now that we shouldn’t be surprised when she gives an excellent, subtle dramatic performance. The big shock in The Skeleton Twins is that her former SNL castmate Bill Hader proves to be capable of the same thing. With his beetle brows, nasal voice, and angular features, he was always well-suited to grotesques, but the actor who once played Stefon is a much more life-sized gay man here. He and his co-star acquit themselves magnificently in this dramedy, which expands to Tarrant County theaters as well as the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth this weekend.
The movie begins with Maggie Dean (Wiig) about to attempt suicide when she receives word that her estranged twin brother Milo (Hader) is himself recovering from a suicide attempt in L.A. Afraid for him, and more than a bit eager to forget her own sorrows while tending to someone else’s, she invites him to move in with her indefinitely in upstate New York.
Between the actors’ low-key performances and director/co-writer Craig Johnson’s understated tone, the whole film plays much like the Richie-Margot plotline from The Royal Tenenbaums. (Helping recall that movie is the presence of Luke Wilson as Maggie’s relentlessly upbeat husband.) You feel the heaviness of the family legacy of depression that Maggie and Milo both struggle with, inherited from a father who killed himself. Smartly, Johnson realizes that he needs more than a few stray wisecracks to dispel the gloom that threatens to overwhelm the movie, so there’s a big comic set piece as Milo cheers Maggie up by getting her to join him in lip-syncing and dancing to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” It’s the one time here that Wiig and Hader reveal their SNL roots.
Still, these actors are even more impressive during the movie’s big dramatic explosions, like Maggie’s self-lacerating freak-out in her car after she goes to end her extramarital fling with her scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook) and winds up having sex with him instead. When she finds out that Milo has spent the night with the former English teacher (Ty Burrell) who molested him in high school, it leads to a great, raw screaming match between the siblings that reveals why they haven’t spoken in 10 years. Hader gets his own great solo turn during Milo’s quietly rending monologue about how the jock who bullied him as a child now has a great life while Milo’s own life still sucks so many years later. They say it gets better. What happens if it doesn’t?
Then again, Milo still has one person who’ll always be in his corner. For all the intra-family fireworks, Hader and Wiig convey the palpable love that spurs these screwed-up people to try to prop each other up through trying times, and the serious performances of these funny actors make The Skeleton Twins into an uncommonly moving experience.
The Skeleton Twins
Starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Directed by Craig Johnson. Written by Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson. Rated R.