Coming off Saturday Night Live, a string of actors have strived to follow in the footsteps of Bill Murray, who can effortlessly leap from quirky comedies like Groundhog Day to tender dramas like Lost In Translation or Broken Flowers. But not all SNL alums are lucky enough to land projects with helmers like Sofia Coppola or Jim Jarmusch. With The Skeleton Twins, comedic performers Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader rein in their manic antics to tap into the maudlin tale of estranged siblings in desperate need of each other. Under the hand of helmer Craig Johnson, the results are uneven, but not uninteresting.
Scripted by Johnson and Mark Heyman, The Skeleton Twins follows Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader), a thirty-something sister-brother duo who hasn't spoken for a decade. However, the silent treatment comes to an abrupt end when a slapdash suicide attempt lands Milo in the hospital. His sister flies cross-country to be by his side, and invite him back to their hometown. There, he confronts a trauma from his teen years, while she must face the problems in her marriage to a sweet but oblivious Luke Wilson. Reunited, the siblings clash and rehash old resentments--against their neglectful mother and gone-too-soon father--before re-forging their broken bond.
First and foremost, Wiig and Hader have an easy chemistry that makes The Skeleton Twins instantly affable. But having the pair play such deeply miserable people forces them to hide away their inherent verve for much of the movie. The three sequences where Maggie and Milo cast their troubles aside and just goof around with each other are outright exhilarating, even though they are made mostly of fart jokes, silly lip-syncing, and costumed shenanigans. These are moments of contagious joy and simple grace. In them, we're given glimpses of who the Skeleton Twins were before the traumas and choices of their lives weighed them down. Likewise, we get glimpses of the movie this could have been, one that need not be depressed to tell a story of the depressed.
It takes some adjusting to see Hader onscreen without the menagerie of goofy mugs and zany voices for which he's known. But he is convincing as the jaded and angry Milo, who lashes out with cynical one-liners that fly over the heads of the happy-go-lucky locals. As for Wiig, she's heartbreaking as the secretive housewife who lies to her brother, husband and herself. But the script just doesn't much for either to dig into aside from longing stares and awkward conversations. There are some scenes of brilliance and life, but others feel barely connected or totally out of place, including an '80s-style montage--complete with blaring inspirational soundtrack--that has the pair earnestly working to be better, more functional human beings. With the jagged black streak of humor set up from the opening suicide attempt, this kind of wackiness is tonally jarring.
The Skeleton Twins has no sense of flow. It lumbers along its narrative of ennui and depression, days and nights clunking along through isolated scenes of frustration or freak outs. Occasionally, a flashback will jolt us into Maggie's memories of a simpler time, when their dad was alive, Milo was a happy little boy in a dress, and she hadn't yet learned of the complications of sex. Intellectually, the intention of these youngster twin scenes is clear. Yet they are too uninspired in imagery, and so feel emotionally shallow. Plus, they exacerbate the film's confounding timeline.
The tragedies the twins eventually unfold turn out to have happened long before their estrangement took hold. This leaves a gap that's failure to be fleshed out is exasperating. The skeletons in the twins' closet make for rich opportunities for drama, but the way they are brought out lacks impact. Reveals that are made in shouted dialogue could have been teased in teenaged flashbacks. The complete lack thereof is not only a missed opportunity, but also one that muddies the narrative.
Basically, The Skeleton Twins is an intriguing but disjointed dramedy. Wiig and Hader offer compelling performances, but their arcs are underwritten and therefore unsatisfying. The film's dark humor is hit-and-miss, which is shocking considering the known talents of its stars. All this adds up to a potentially great drama that is marred by the wonky handling of Johnson, who plucked the wrong bits of twin past to focus on. While The Skeleton Twins will help Hader and Wiig's growing reputations as actors, it's easy to imagine that a few more movies from now, this celebrated Sundance selection will be forgotten for more daring fare and emotionally lush fare.