It goes without saying that every year throws up its fair share of overlooked gems, and I’d like to make a case here that one of the most slept-on films of 2014 is Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, a pin-sharp comedy-drama that makes the most of the chemistry shared by its two stars, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They play a pair of estranged siblings, Milo and Maggie, who are reunited in disturbing fashion when Milo botches a suicide attempt in LA and Maggie hears about it over the phone back east, coincidentally just as she is about to take an overdose herself. And while suicide and comedy are not easy bedfellows, Johnson’s screenplay (co-written by Black Swan writer Mark Heyman) is necessarily sympathetic to the fragile states of mind of the two characters, exploring their shared depression and their complicated personal relationships with subtlety and grace while also giving each a sharply-humorous rough edge (Milo in particular uses acerbic sarcasm as a preemptive strike at pretty much everyone he meets). Some indies manage to get this balance between tears and laughter just right, but fewer still are also able to address the various emotions that lie in-between while also factoring in the possible causes for such a swing. Johnson has a commendable stab here.
Hader and Wiig have worked together for years, of course, and although I’ve been impressed by the latter in a couple of serious roles of late (I personally think she should pick up one or two heavy duty award nominations at the very least for her performance in The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, but that’s a discussion for another month) this is the first time I can remember seeing Hader play it straight (his character’s gay; no pun intended). I guess the actor’s responsible for as many (if not more) laughs here than in the fratpack comedies that have helped to gradually raise his profile, but as a fan I’m glad to see he can handle the emotionally-fraught, serious stuff this well too. Both leads established their comic credentials on Saturday Night Live of course – joining and leaving the show around the same time as one another – and their casting as brother and sister here makes perfect sense. There are several scenes where each looks to be on the verge of making their counterpart laugh, such as the one in which they chat while sharing some laughing gas, and it makes it seem as though we’re watching characters who really do know each other well. (And with that in mind I dread to think how many takes they needed for the joyously uplifting lip sync number set to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.)
Milo moves in with Maggie and her gregarious husband Lance (Luke Wilson shining as a well-meaning semi-doofus) at the beginning of the story, and the tentative reconnection with his sister plays out in tandem with a tentative reconnection with his hometown, condensed into a subplot involving a former English teacher who Milo slept with at the age of 15 and never quite got over (Ty Burrell). Milo’s mental health issues are out in the open but Maggie’s are hidden, and her concerns lie with the suitability of Lance as a life partner and her own suitability as a mother in the future. Hanging over the pair are the famous words of Philip Larkin: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.‘ And thus the screenplay suggests that Milo and Maggie’s shared anguish has its roots, understandably, in their father’s suicide and the awkward relationship they have with their new-age mother (Joanna Gleason), who briefly appears in one awkward scene.
I liked Johnson’s recurring symbolism, which prominently links death and water, and I enjoyed the performances by the two leads, who gently remind us that it’s possible for actors to make the move from comedy to serious drama by walking down less obvious paths (or rather ones that are less obvious in the way that they demand your attention) than those trodden in recent years by Jim Carrey or Steve Carell. A year ago I had no idea either Wiig or Hader were this good, despite liking the sketches and brief cinematic appearances of both generally. Obviously Hader has now appeared in two of the biggest films of the summer, but I doubt that means he’ll stop making more films like The Skeleton Twins in the future. Wiig, meanwhile, is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses.
Directed by: Craig Johnson.
Written by: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman.
Starring: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell.
Cinematography: Reed Morano.
Editing: Jennifer Lee.
Music: Nathan Larson.
Running Time: 93 minutes.