“Hilarious!” say the trailers! “Really funny!” says the poster. “You are all sick people!” says me.
Yes, in parts, The Skeleton Twins is amusing. This is because stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are incapable of being unfunny, especially when left alone together. But this is a movie that begins and ends with suicide attempts, contains an ongoing implosion of a marriage and explores whether one relationship counted as a sexual awakening or child molestation. That doth not a laugh-riot make.
Hader stars as Milo, a failed actor who slashes his wrists, presumably after his boyfriend left him. Wiig is Maggie, Milo’s estranged sister who was contemplating a fistful of pills when the hospital called about Milo’s suicide attempt. The two reconnect for the first time in ages, with Maggie taking Milo back to New York to live with her and her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson).
Lance is a sweet, dopey everyman McAmerican; he’s the kind of guy who calls everybody “buddy” or “dude” and has enough fist bumps to go around. Maggie loves Lance. And yet, Maggie sleeps around on him, most recently with a scuba instructor. Meanwhile, Milo attempts to reconnect with the first man he slept with, Rich (Ty Burrell). The only problem being that Rich was Milo’s English teacher, and Milo was just 15, when they had relations. Oh, and Rich is closeted and has a son. Basically, decades after their father took his own life, Maggie and Milo are both really bad at being human beings.
Writer Mark Heyman and writer/director Craig Johnson lucked out. Wiig and Hader, desperate to show their range, elevate what is basically Indie Dramedy 101. Whimsical dancing to a nostalgic song? Check. Heartfelt “what’s the meaning of life” conversations in an unusual location (here, high on laughing gas in a dental office)? Check. On the surface, this is the unneeded spawn of Garden State and Little Miss Sunshine. Enter Wiig and Hader.
Once more proving that comedy is harder than drama, the former “SNL” costars effortlessly nail nuanced and fully realized characters. Hader neither over nor underplays Milo’s sexuality, clearly understanding its central role in his character’s identity and struggles. He is subtle in a way his time on a late-night variety show could not have suggested. Wiig, who everyone assumed had chops, shows them off here. With one repeated word inside a car, she perfectly captures the frustration of a woman who has become the worst version of herself.
It’s understandable why the comedy angle is being thrust forward in the film’s marketing, what with the reputations of the leads. The truth is, The Skeleton Twins uses humor only as respite from a heavy thematic reliance on suicide, which is a decidedly less than funny subject. Although wobbly in its construction, a character-centric dramedy with Wiig and Hader as said characters was never going to be anything other than pretty doggone good.
Grade = B