By all accounts, working as a cast member on Saturday Night Live is like sharing a cramped bedroom with a dozen brothers and sisters who are all competing for the attention of daddy, Lorne Michaels. In the early, druggy seasons of the show, the combustible egos and tight quarters of Studio 8H could result in friction and infighting (just ask Bill Murray and Chevy Chase…but not while they’re in the same room). Still, that bond often resulted in on-air magic. More recently, the once-dysfunctional backstage dynamic at SNL has calmed down more than a little. Whether it’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler riffing in what feels like the secret language of twin sisters at the Golden Globes or the big-brother/little-brother vibe of Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, the show’s younger alumni now radiate the back-and-forth familiarity of siblings who actually like one another. Maybe that explains Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s effortless chemistry in The Skeleton Twins.
Wiig and Hader play a troubled sister and brother grappling with the long-festering emotional fallout of their messed-up family. Their mother (Joanna Gleason) is a dizzy New Age healer with her head in the sand when it comes to her kids’ problems. And their father committed suicide when they were children — an exit that’s all too understandable for Wiig and Hader’s now-grown-up-and-miserable Maggie and Milo. In fact, in the opening moments of the film, Maggie is prevented from swallowing a fistful of pills by a call informing her that Milo has just tried to kill himself by slicing his wrists in the bathtub. Did I mention that The Skeleton Twins is a comedy?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Maybe I should also mention that Milo’s suicide note reads, ”To whom it may concern, see ya later” with a smiley face underneath. Or that the ringtone on Maggie’s phone when she gets the call from the hospital is the Growing Pains theme. Like Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in 2000’s You Can Count on Me, Wiig and Hader play estranged siblings who haven’t spoken for a decade but who reunite and slowly realize that as much as they can’t stand one another, they’re also the only ones who truly get each other. They’re two broken souls secretly hoping the other might have the spiritual Krazy Glue they need.
Milo, a gay, depressed wannabe actor in Los Angeles, returns home to New York’s Rockland County and moves in with Maggie and her sunny, frat-boyish husband, Lance (an excellent Luke Wilson). Both Maggie and Milo are masters at keeping secrets and sabotaging whatever happiness they manage to inadvertently bring into their lives. But for a while at least, they fall back into being the same kids who shared confidences, played hers-and-hers dress-up, and finished each other’s sarcastic, smart-ass jokes. In the film’s funniest scene, Wiig and Hader do a lip-synch duet to Starship’s schmaltzy anthem ”Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” As wince-inducing as that reads in print, it’s impossible not to smile watching it on screen.
Of course, we know that whatever caused Maggie and Milo to stop talking is bound to resurface. And it does, right on cue. The main problem with the film is that too many of the beats created by director/co-writer Craig Johnson (True Adolescents) feel as programmed as the outline of a screenwriting manual (especially the maddeningly improbable ending). Still, the two costars elevate the film beyond formula. Their onscreen rapport is infectious and believable. Wiig has done this kind of heavy lifting with a light touch before in both Bridesmaids and Friends With Kids. Hader, though, is the film’s real surprise. It would have been easy for him to turn Milo into a gay cartoon like his after-hours alter ego Stefon. But he resists the temptation to go for easy laughs and broad strokes and delivers something darker and deeper. It’s a shockingly vulnerable performance, one of the best I’ve seen all year. B+