Sundance 2014 Review: In THE SKELETON TWINS Bill Hader Elevates An Otherwise Pedestrian American Dramedy
Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins, his follow up to the 2009 Mark Duplass starring True Adolescents, is, to put it politely, a safe bet. It checks most of the boxes for what I now know to call a "Typical Sundance Film". These are usually American made movies with likeable and recognizable actors. Their stories are generally about coming home and facing family; getting over past demons and healing. They are a little sad, no doubt funny, and of course uplifting. They are competently crafted crowd pleasers, derived from universal life truths, and distilled down to a pleasant bite size. And there is honestly nothing wrong with that, it's just that I'm rarely the audience for it. Though this time...this time... I got close pretty close.
SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig star as our titular twins, Milo and Maggie. Depressed from a breakup with his boyfriend, Milo decides to end it all. His penchant for the melodramatic leads to the neighbors complaining about the loud music that is to play over his bathtub suicide, and so he finds himself in a hospital bed, his estranged sister sitting across from him. Maggie, as fate would have it, was about to swallow a bottle of pills when she got the call from the hospital about Milo. She decides to bring her brother home back east as it'll give him a chance to heal, and for them to reconnect.
In their sleepy North Eastern town, Milo attempts to reconnect with the high school teacher who he had an affair with as a student. Meanwhile, Maggie takes scuba diving lessons, sleeping with the instructor, ignoring her husband, Lance, a loveable lunkhead who is ready to have kids (Lance is played by the go to guy for loveable lunkheads, Luke Wilson).
Secrets and past demons arise bringing the siblings closer and then pushing them apart in our "dark night of the soul" drama rising middle, before coming to our catharsis and then the solid signs of healing. While Johnson's directing is quite sincere, and he isn't afraid to get a bit dark and emotionally messy, the plot feels so telegraphed as to be preordained, timeworn and just plain trite.
What makes The Skeleton Twins click at all are the lead performances, particularly the turn from Hader. A favorite performer for his slew of eclectic characters and dynamic impressions during his SNL run (Vincent Price was a fav of mine), Hader has also had a bright string of supporting comedic roles in features. But it is here where we really get to see for the first time how amazing of an actor he can be. There's the old bit about good comedians being able to give great dramatic turns when taken on, and just like his fellow SNL alum Will Forte in last year's Nebraska, Hader impresses here. His Milo is brutally deadpan and morbid at times, playful, caring, and destructive. He uses comedy and performance as a shield and also as the secret weapon. The sibling rapport between he and Wiig feels authentic. This is no more so enduring than when the pair get high off of nitrous gas at Maggie's dentist office. Rolling on the floor, doing impressions and voices, one can sense the history between these two characters, as well as the performers themselves.
Dealing with pain through humor is certainly another old storytelling path to take, and when it works it works quite well. The Skeleton Twins may be genuine in those intentions, but it merely remains a competent production, a perfectly safe bet. And safe bets really don't excite me.