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The Skeleton Twins  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Craig Johnson.
Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Ty Burrell, Luke Wilson, Boyd Holbrook, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Joanna Gleason, Eddie Schweighardt, Sydney Lucas.
2014 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, some sexuality and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 5, 2014.
For seven years, Bill Hader (2013's "The To Do List") and Kristen Wiig (2014's "Hateship Loveship") shared the stage at Rockefeller Plaza's Studio 8H as cast members of "Saturday Night Live," creating some of the most memorable sketch characters the show has seen (and this is saying quite a lot). Their easy, lived-in rapport and innate gifts for comedy serve them extraordinarily well in the moving, low-key drama "The Skeleton Twins." Playing desperately troubled estranged twins who reunite after a decade apart, Hader and Wiig find uniquely fitting chances for unforced humor in a subjectively dark story. That they are so affecting and nuanced in performances that call for them to do anything but portray caricatures serves to showcase their range. Yes, Hader and Wiig can be very funny, but the depths of their abilities as actors run deep.

As kids, siblings Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie Dean (Kristen Wiig) were the "Gruesome Twosome," two Halloween-loving peas in a pod whose lives were forever changed when their beloved father took his own life. Now in their thirties, Maggie's contemplation over swallowing a handful of pills is interrupted by a phone call informing her that Milo is in the hospital after a suicide attempt. They haven't seen each other in ten years, but their hesitance with each other quickly falls away after Maggie invites L.A. resident Milo to come stay with her and ingratiating husband Lance (Luke Wilson) at their home in upstate New York. As struggling actor Milo tries to get his life in order and reconnects with an older man from his past, book store owner Rich (Ty Burrell), dental hygienist Maggie's "perfect" suburban existence proves to be a mere façade for a woman whose rampant indiscretions and dishonesty have put her would-be solid marriage in crisis.

An observant double character study, "The Skeleton Twins" revolves around two protagonists who are worthy of the viewer's time and sympathy. Pontificating about trying to kill himself, Milo calls himself "another tragic gay cliché." As more is divulged about him and what he's been through, however, he becomes anything but a stereotype. When he was a bullied teenager, he was told that things would only get better for him as he journeyed into adulthood. Upon moving to Los Angeles to fulfill his dreams of being an actor, all that he found were a series of failed auditions and a relationship that ended in a crushing breakup. If things have not turned out for Milo as he imagined, the same could be said of Maggie. Though she has seemingly settled into wedded bliss with nice-guy Lance, her destructive behavior—from being unfaithful to claiming she wants to have a child even as she continues to secretly take birth control pills—leaves her guilty and tortured. She is well aware that she keeps making poor decisions, and why she would put her marriage into jeopardy with a man she genuinely loves is a question that continues to elude her.

Writer-director Craig Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman (2010's "Black Swan") see Milo and Maggie as complicated, three-dimensional souls, tormented by their pasts and yearning to move on if only they could resolve their prickly issues. A platonic love story between siblings, the film gets beautiful mileage out of the sterling work of the indomitable Kristen Wiig and a revelatory Bill Hader. Wiig, of course, has gracefully exhibited the range of a legitimately fine dramatic actor in a number of roles, but this kind of emotionally raw, understated work feels new and exciting for Hader, about a million miles away from his Stefon character on "SNL." The scenes in which the two of them talk and connect, discuss what they've faced and where they have currently found themselves, holds a connective intimacy that cannot be faked. And then there's the movie's biggest standout moment, an impromptu lip-synching session to Starship's '80s anthem "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" that avoids becoming cloying and goes straight to that transcendent sweet spot of sheer cinematic joy.

Photographed by Reed Morano with an autumnal, small-town New England glow, "The Skeleton Twins" packs a punch by virtue of having great performers in unexpected parts getting the chance to dive into a script that reveals itself and the shades of its characters gradually and instinctively. Johnson and Heyman's screenplay is not perfect, unfortunately, and there are a few story developments—including a key moment near the end—that strike as too convenient and manufactured by a half. Additionally, the treatment of depression and the notion of being suicidal wavers between respectful and negligent of just how serious of an illness it is. The final moments of the picture are at once pleasingly open-ended and too tidy for their own good. What endures—and what is so stirring—is the heart-aching truth that Wiig and Hader find in their Maggie and Milo. Ty Burrell (2014's "Muppets Most Wanted"), as the plagued, initially enigmatic Rich, and Luke Wilson (2008's "Henry Poole Is Here"), a beacon of affectionate, easy-going goodness as Lance, additionally contribute succinct supporting turns. All of these human figures are fascinating and fully realized as people rather than constructs, seemingly existing beyond the film's onscreen narrative. It is this attention to detail that polishes over the trouble spots, blessing "The Skeleton Twins" with a compelling, poignant vitality.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman