“God, what the hell happened to us?”
If you ever want to see a movie at the theater, which few people do these days, go on opening night to a sold out crowd or wait a few weeks and go to a matinee that’s sure to be empty. This time around I chose the latter. And what a remarkable, almost empowering experience it was. As I sat in my own private cinema and watched The Skeleton Twins, I found myself laughing out loud one moment and cringing the next. Be warned: this is a markedly more dramatic film with short, intense bursts of laughter. Probably not what people expect when looking at the poster. Regardless, it’s one of the best independent films released this year.
Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) are twins who have grown apart, not speaking to one another for a decade. Milo moved away to LA with dreams of becoming a famous actor only to end up waiting tables to make ends meet. Maggie lives back home in New York. She’s a licensed dental practitioner married to the amiable and unintentionally comical Lance (Luke Wilson). One day Milo gets drunk, obviously heart-broken, and attempts to off himself in the same fashion as The Big Chill. Maggie gets the call about her brother right before she’s about to swallow a handful of pills. Self-destruction unifies them.
After his botched suicide, Maggie invites Milo to come back with her and stay for awhile. That’s where the bulk of the story takes place as we see these two, so intuitively connected, continue to sabotage their relationships and lives. Milo, openly gay, seeks out a past flame in town. It’s his old high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell), a smart man who stupidly fooled around with Milo as a 15 year old. Maggie goes from hobby to hobby often cheating on her husband in the process, this time falling for her Australian Scuba instructor. These two just can’t manage to find happiness. If this were a game of hide and seek with love, they’d so obviously be looking in all of the wrong places.
Storywise, The Skeleton Twins is so familiar while maintaining a sense of individuality throughout. The average moviegoer has seen this kind of movie before, but what the film does best is place scenes we’re accustomed to in entirely new settings / situations. You won’t find yourself checking the clock with this movie. It’s a perfectly timed and smooth viewing experience that never gets in over its head. Yet while the script is fairly flawed, almost to the point that it limits the capable onscreen talent, it achieves the perfect balance of dramedy. Things can go wrong for the protagonists very fast. That’s why the movie takes its time and releases the positive energy at key, pivotal moments. This is a tightrope act that definitely missteps but never plummets.
As for Hader and Wiig, they deserve every bit of effusive praise they have received for their performances. Watching Hader play Milo is like seeing a serious take on his famous SNL character Stefon. He’s a smartass who feigns sincerity, always ready to make a joke or just drink the pain away. Hader has such a magnetic personality and it makes Milo likable throughout, yet one scene in particular jumps out. Milo stands defensive until a truly spiteful and vindictive comment is thrown at him by his sister…you’ve never seen Hader like this before. As for Wiig, there’s a reason Lorne Michaels calls her one of SNL’s best ever. She’s a comedic genius, but until now I was let down by her feature film performances. Not anymore. Wiig is an avalanche of emotion as Maggie goes off the rails, not knowing what to do or where to turn. She delivers a powerhouse performance that is one of the best female leads I’ve seen this year.
Throughout the film, there is a constant theme of drowning. Of being so stressed and tired and broken that you just want to give up and sink down. Milo and Maggie certainly earn their place in the deep end, having had a father who killed himself along with an airheaded and selfish mother. Sometimes the best thing to do is just breathe, to sit back, relax, and take a long inhale of fresh air. A few parts in the film show the leads doing so and they’re some of the most enjoyable scenes I’ve seen all year. Hader and Wiig get to riff while acting like they’re high on nitrous. And in what might be my favorite film moment of ’14, Milo coerces a singalong out of his twin to Starship’s classic anthem Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. The scene is fun, emotional, and absurdly brilliant. The Skeleton Twins just has something missing that doesn’t tie all of the loose ends together but I didn’t care one bit. Hard films with good laughs are a dime a dozen. And this is one of them.
“The rest of us are just walking around trying not to be disappointed with how our lives have turned out.”
Rating: 4 out of 5