Year Released: 2013
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 90 minutes
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Siblings have a connection that can be difficult to define if you don’t have one. Shared histories and known secrets can lead to dynamics that flit wildly from love to hate and back again, taking on a whole different reality after siblings move on with their own lives. And I imagine that unique bond is even more so with fraternal twins like Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader), the protagonists of Craig Johnson’s funny and heartbreaking “The Skeleton Twins,” one of the few films of Sundance 2014 that really feels like it could break out as a hit outside of the thin mountain air. With career-best work by both Wiig & Hader, a touching (if a bit formulaic) script, and precise tonal balance, this is the only Sundance dramedy this year that has a fine-tuned blend of both elements that make up that notorious hybrid genre.
Maggie and her gay brother Milo are estranged, the former still in their hometown with a new husband in Lance (Luke Wilson) and the latter on the West Coast, trying to make it as an actor; he’s hitting an emotional low when the film opens. Shortly after Milo slits his wrists in his bathtub, Maggie is staring at a handful of pills herself when she gets the call that her brother is in the hospital. (Yes, believe it or not, this is the funniest movie of Sundance 2014 too. Stick with me.) Maggie heads out West, surprising a brother who didn’t even expect her to come and bringing him back home with her. Milo will hang with Maggie and her husband to try to get his shit back together.
Of course, Maggie has her own issues. She’s sleeping with her SCUBA instructor and secretly taking birth control pills, even though Lance thinks they’ve been trying to have kids for two years. As Maggie continues to lash out at a domesticity that she doesn’t seem to want, Milo reunites with someone crucial to his past, his high school English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell). During the day, Milo tries to help Lance at his job, but the manual labor doesn’t fit him, and he works to build bridges with his sister that were broken down many years ago.
“The Skeleton Twins” is about two people trying to avoid lives that they have deemed disappointing. With an unsupportive mother and dead father, they’re floating in malaise, drifting to deadly depression. And their reunion highlights both peaks and valleys of their past and present. Maggie has a supportive, kind husband, even if he is correctly described by Milo as a “Labrador Retriever.” Milo can be a selfish jerk, only seeing his problems and failing to understand that life isn’t always going to give you what you need when you need it. Milo has an amazing speech, delivered perfectly by Hader, about his concern that he peaked in high school and that things don’t get better for him, but he too often thinks that he’s the only one in such an emotional place.
Probably due to their experience together on “Saturday Night Live,” Hader and Wiig have some of the most believable co-star chemistry in quite some time. We believe, instantly, that Maggie and Milo are siblings because of the truth of Hader and Wiig’s performances. They’re great on their own but their best work comes in the scenes they have together, sharing memories, concerns, and that unique brand of sibling love. Hader brings a gentle charm to Milo but he also shades it in darkness. Depression is very rarely handled in believable ways in dramedies, usually used as a plot device, but Hader makes Milo a complete character, genuine in every scene. Ditto Wiig, who goes to emotional places here that no previous script has allowed. Neither has been better on film before and they push the script over its admittedly tidy screenwriting cues. Yes, Johnson’s work has a few too many neat resolutions in the final act but the stars are so good that they feel earned.
While tears will likely be shed, “The Skeleton Twins” is also hysterical. It’s not breaking news to claim that Hader and Wiig have perfect comic timing and they seem to improve it just by playing off each other. Wilson has upped his game here as well, delivering his funniest, truest work since “The Royal Tenenbaums” (excluding HBO’s “Enlightened”). And the film must be seen just for the best lip-sync scene, well, ever.
Dramedy, especially those that premiere at Sundance, can be an incredibly difficult genre to balance tonally. Too many come off as cloying and self-aware (this year’s “Laggies” and “Infinitely Polar Bear”). Others just aren’t funny or serious enough to matter. It is rare to see a film as tonally balanced as “The Skeleton Twins.” It is both a tearjerker and a crowdpleaser, often in the same scene. Like siblings who each bring their own angle to a relationship, “The Skeleton Twins” is the rare dramedy that blends the two halves of its hybrid genre.
Posted on January 21, 2014 in Reviews by Brian Tallerico
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