At The Movies: The Skeleton Twins (2014)

skeletontwins2014

The Skeleton Twins

★★★★☆

2014 • 93 minutes • Roadside Attractions

They say that your favorite incarnation of Saturday Night Live is the one you experienced in high school, when you were old enough to get the jokes and stay up that late, but not old enough to do anything else with your Saturday night. Despite my current quest to watch Saturday Night Live from the beginning (on hiatus until Captain Cinema’s screen is delivered to us) and my predilection for cooing over baby Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers at the beginning of their tenure, this has held true. I began watching the show when Hulu launched in 2007, and I retain a fevered fondness for the cast I started with—the aforementioned Poehler and Meyers, the always deliriously and sweetly weird Will Forte, the short-lived Casey Wilson, and Bill Hader.

Hader was such a fixture on the show that I only really became aware of him, despite appreciating his talents, when his now famous character Stefon started appearing on Weekend Update. (Stefon actually debuted in a proper sketch when Ben Affleck hosted in 2008.) That’s when I really started watching the show religiously, and I loved it. (I mean, I still love it, but you know what I mean.) When “my” cast members began leaving the show, I was always a little wistful, but Hader’s departure last year—complete with the epic Stefon wedding filmed sketch, which must be seen to be believed—was the first time I really missed a cast member. (Mercifully, Beck Bennett is picking up the pompous character slack, which I do appreciate.) Captain Cinema and I have delighted to see him intermittently in media (“Gosh, he looks so rested!” I distinctly remember texting Captain Cinema after he popped up on Saturday Night Live briefly), but The Skeleton Twins marked the first major post-Saturday Night Live project of his to come to fruition.

It may seem odd for someone so lauded as a comedian (Hader is Emmy nominated) to turn to drama, but that’s only if you look solely at Hader. What The Skeleton Twins gets completely right is casting Hader alongside Kristen Wiig, his co-star on Saturday Night Live and one of his dearest friends. Chemistry helps when you’re playing siblings, but playing twins—especially estranged ones—requires a unique kind of trust and vulnerability that can only come from living and dying before a live studio audience together every Saturday night. Director Craig Johnson uses that to not only charm us silly as Hader and Wiig riff off each other in the film’s few comedic scenes, but also cut deeply. In one of the film’s most painful scenes (there are several), Maggie (Wiig) snarls something unforgivable at Milo (Hader). There were more lines in the script, but Hader was so in the moment that he simply “walked out of the shot, past the crew and down the street in the emotional moment.” It’s acting while being completely in the moment, the kind of acting favored in independent films and encouraged by Johnson’s light but pointed directing style.

Ultimately, The Skeleton Twins becomes a dramatic showcase for these two powerhouse performances. It’s a very complete film, to quote Captain Cinema; it’s emotionally messy, with its penultimate shot recalling Milo’s re-entry into their hometown, but it’s also small enough to get both your hands around while gently interrogating the tortured inner lives of these two depressive siblings. Their decade-long estrangement does get an explanation, towards the end, wrapped up in Milo’s crush on/obsession with the high school English teacher who took advantage of him when he was young, but the film is not concerned with explaining exactly how they got where they are. Instead, it’s much more interested in their recovery—of their relationship and from their current depressive episodes.

Anything outside of that periphery seems to be a little thinner. Maggie’s eternally upbeat, affable, and clueless husband, Lance, is given a wonderful sense of dignity by Luke Wilson, Milo’s teacher, played by Ty Burrell, has some depth to him (he’s closeted and unhappy that he never made a go of it), and Joanna Gleason’s brief scene as the twins’ airy, neglectful mother all make an impact, but it’s all a distant second to Hader and Wiig. It’s a quiet, small, and self-contained film; if you like Hader or Wiig, you’ll want to see it.

I saw this film in theaters.

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