Directed by: Craig Johnson.
Written by: Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson.
Starring: Bill Hader (Milo), Kristen Wiig (Maggie), Luke Wilson (Lance), Ty Burrell (Rich), Boyd Holbrook (Billy), Joanna Gleason (Judy).
If there is a stereotypical “Sundance Movie” – than The Skeleton Twins may well be it. It is a low-key comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family, where the two stars are trying to redefine their image. It is full of quirky characters and situations, but there is an undercurrent of sadness to the movie. In many ways, the typical Sundance film is as formulaic as the Hollywood blockbusters – and in most ways, The Skeleton Twins fits that formula. Yet, what makes The Skeleton Twins better than most typical Sundance movies is that the two central performances – by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig – are stronger than the screenplay itself. The screenplay seems to want to wrap everything up in a neat little package at the end – but the two central actors do not quite allow that.
The movie is about Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig) – twins who haven’t seen each other in 10 years. Their father killed himself when they were 14, and they were raised from then on by a distant, uncaring mother. Now in their mid-30s, they have both inherited their father’s depression. They only see each other again after Milo attempts suicide by slitting his wrists – and Maggie comes out to take him back to her home to recover – even though the phone call to tell her what happened to Milo interrupted her own suicide attempt. So Milo comes back to his small hometown where Maggie still lives – now married to lovable, lunkhead Lance (Luke Wilson). Maggie is trying to make it work with Lance, but she cannot stop herself from cheating on him with pretty much anyone around – in particular her scuba diving teacher. She’s just as messed up as Milo is – but she’s trying very hard to keep that a secret from everyone. For his part, Milo also has his secrets when he returns to town – sneaking off to see Rich (Ty Burrell) – his former English teacher, who was fired when his “relationship” with a then 15 year old Milo was discovered (although they never made that public). The twins share a deep connection with each – that is perhaps too deep, which is why they have stayed away from each other for so long. But in the end, they need each other.
The movie certainly follows the typical Sundance type formula. The film is quirky, and darkly humorous, but it contains any number of the clichéd scenes – like a sing-along for example, and is also somewhat patronizing towards the “normal” people it is reputably about. It is not nearly as insightful as director/co-writer Craig Johnson thinks it is.
Yet, the film still somehow works for the most part – and that all comes down to the two lead performances by Hader and Wiig. They dig deeper than the screenplay does, and makes these two characters – who in many ways are little more than a bundle of clichés – into real people. This is the first time I`ve seen Hader play a more dramatic role – but he pretty much nails Milo’s depressive state, and the way he uses his quips to mask his deeper pain. Hader is capable of going over the top – as he showed brilliantly on SNL for years – but here he underplays his character nicely. Wiig, who has been trying to find the right dramatic role for a while now, finally finds it her. She was better than the movie itself in Hateship Loveship earlier this year – but she was a little too passive in that film, pretending being quiet was the same as being subtle. She gets the balance right here – she is a woman who is flailing on the inside, while trying desperately to appear normal. She wants nothing more than to be normal – but that is the one thing she cannot be.
What the movie understands about depression is what most movies get wrong about it – that’s it’s not about sitting around listening to sad songs or eating non-stop and not getting out of bed – but just an overwhelming sadness in your day-to-day life – a low-key sadness, not a showy one. Hader and Wiig are excellent in showing this side of depression.
The movie itself isn’t nearly as good as Hader and Wiig are. It puts these interesting characters, and great performances, into one clichéd scene after the next – and yet the actors save it from being yet another forgettable Sundance film. It isn’t a great film by any means – but it shows that Hader and Wiig can be great. Now they just a screenplay to fully utilize their talents.