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The Skeleton Twins | 2014 Sundance Review

Sticks & Stones: Johnson’s Winning Dramedy a Showcase for Wiig & Hader

The transition from sketch comedy television to the big screen is often a disappointing one for many performers, regardless of accolades or success, as the film industry is not often an arena of ‘sure things.’ As two of the most talented cast members to have migrated from Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader have experienced varying degrees of success since leaving the show, but are no strangers to being typecast or underutilized in film vehicles both mainstream and indie. Happily, Craig Johnson’s sophomore film, The Skeleton Twins, offers the duo an enervating chance to utilize their comic skills while also giving them a chance to shine in dramatic roles. At times delightfully funny, Johnson’s surprisingly dark film avoids many of the general pratfalls of white suburban ennui as it manages to be both heartfelt and adult.

Estranged fraternal twins Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) are reunited when Milo survives a suicide attempt in his Los Angeles apartment. Neither have spoken to each other for a decade, with Maggie having stayed in their childhood home in New York, where she is stuck in a rather stale marriage with Lance (Luke Wilson), while Milo has tried and failed to be a successful actor on the West Coast. A breakup with his last boyfriend seems to have instigated his current scenario. Convincing him to return to New York with her, Milo reluctantly tags along, which ultimately forces both of them to examine the significant happenings from the past that caused their current lack of communication. As Milo attempts to reconnect with their disinterested mother (Joanna Gleason) and the first love he never got over (Ty Burrell), Maggie is forced to examine whether or not she’s really happy with sweet but ultimately dull Lance.

While The Skeleton Twins may sound predictable, perhaps even banal, the end product is an engagingly paced, bittersweet drama filled with punctuated moments of Maggie and Milo as they tentatively begin to reconnect. Slowly, we learn darker secrets about their past, like the suicide of their father, which has always haunted them, or the action that seems to have caused the eventual rift, revolving around a scandal involving Milo and his English teacher in high-school. Likewise, Maggie’s sexual proclivities feel refreshingly adult, with Johnson and Mark Heyman’s (who penned Black Swan, 2010) script wisely and gloriously including the messy reality of desire and emotion.

As excellent as Wiig’s performance as Maggie is, she’s often usurped by Hader’s Milo, a depressed and sometimes suicidal gay man who is neither lazy cliché nor gross caricature. Several goofy moments provide necessary relief from the rather heavy dramatic conflict, including giggling through a cloud of nerve gas at the dentist’s office where Maggie works and a stupendously awful Halloween drag outfit. However, nothing surpasses a glorious lip-synch to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us,” a moment that sounds like cliché, but is played to deliriously perfect pitch by Hader.

A handful of charismatic supporting characters are also surprisingly effective, such Luke Wilson in one of his best roles in years, here a charming, patient husband to the problematic Maggie, a performance that could have easily been that of a dumb goon played for cheap laughs. Likewise, a quiet turn from Ty Burrell invokes sympathy even as we realize the damaging and toxic nature of his effect and relationship on the emotionally troubled Milo. It’s these fully realized elements of all these characters that make The Skeleton Twins an effective drama, in that it doesn’t shy away from problematic gray areas.

Reviewed on January 19 at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival – U.S. Dramatic Competition. 90 Mins.
★★★ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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