The story you’re going to hear for a while is the breathless commentary about the fact that comedian Bill Hader is (gasp) playing a semi-dramatic role for the first time in this film. It’s worth discussing only because he takes to those waters so gracefully, exuding so much poise and grace alongside the charm and warmth he is already known for. What is going to be glossed over in those profiles of Hader is the fact that the vehicle for his emergence as a multi-layered performer is clunky and overly melodramatic.
THE SKELETON TWINS in question are Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig), fraternal twins that have been estranged for a decade for reasons unspoken. The two are forced back into each other’s company when Milo attempts to kill himself in the wake of a bad breakup. In her fumbling attempt to try and help her brother out, Maggie invites him back to their old hometown in upstate New York to recuperate.
This puts both Milo and Maggie at odds with their past and present day lives. In the case of the former, it is reconnecting with his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell) with whom he had an illicit affair with during his teen years. For Maggie, it’s struggling with suburban ennui to the point that, in spite of her claims that she and her pleasantly average husband (Luke Wilson in one of his best film roles in years) are trying to start a family, she’s taking birth control pills. Not to mention the affairs that she’s had in some blinkered way of acting out the feelings she can’t seem to express.
Both of them do a strange kind of dance around each other, teasing out the deep connection they once had. And, in an entirely throwaway sequence, suffer through a dinner party with their mother, lashing out at her indifference towards her children’s lives. Add to it the unresolved feelings that they carry about their beloved father’s suicide, is it any wonder that they simply can’t get talk about what is eating them up inside except under extreme duress?
What screenwriters Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson get right in SKELETON is a clear view of depression and the ways in which it can stultify one’s ability to both break free of self-destructive patterns and express the hurt that lies so deeply inside them. The trouble is that they never capture the right balance of the light and dark. The funny moments often jar, arriving occasionally from out of nowhere or get dragged on far too long for their own good. As much fun as it is to see Milo and Maggie riffing while their characters are high on nitrous oxide, and lip syncing their troubles away to a Starship tune, the scenes end up feeling interminable. If it weren’t for the completely natural chemistry between Hader and Wiig, we’d be completely lost.
As well, the dramatic scenes often feel like they should be accompanied with the “Oscar Clip” subtitle from WAYNE’S WORLD. In spite of the otherwise fine acting of almost everyone on screen here, they give themselves over to big bloviating outbursts that never entirely match up with the scenes they accompany. It’s emotional overkill. We’d also do better to avoid discussion of the hoary symbolism shoehorned into the proceedings.
You will continue to hear about Hader’s performance in SKELETON TWINS, if only because he’s the sole actor who walks away from this unscathed. Outside of a few moments, he underplays everything, even the big opening scenes when he’s drunkenly opening up his veins in the bathtub. He especially comes alive in his interactions with Rich (his ex-teacher/lover), with the hopefulness and fear and naked lust dancing through his eyes and along the corners of his mouth. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; give Hader even the most underwritten, throwaway role (see: PAUL, ADVENTURELAND, or FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL) and he will make it his own and something that you’ll remember even if the rest of the film is a bust. SKELETON TWINS isn’t that far gone, but it is Hader who lingers longest and strongest after the credits roll.