Actors Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader have habitually epitomized the lofty standards of onscreen comedy. For almost a decade, they honed their chops as break-out stars on Saturday Night Live, often playing off of each other’s droll sensibilities. Their segues into silver screen stardom have not been synonymous: Wiig broke out with her star-making performance in 2011’s Bridesmaids, while Hader has favored more eclectic supporting roles like in 2007’s Superbad and 2009’s Adventureland (which also co-starred Wiig), but their surefire comedic talents have never been doubted.
That’s why, as comedians, their co-starring roles in Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins are not only unexpected, but potentially precarious. By placing them together in a film that examines suicide attempts, adultery, and child molestation charges, such casting choices can read like an accident waiting to happen. The question is, will it qualify as accidental brilliance or a wreck that we’d all rather forget?
I can say with much consolation that in The Skeleton Twins Wiig and Hader have perfected the awkward art of comedic-to-dramatic transition. Their performances as depressed Milo (Hader) and dissatisfied Maggie (Wiig) are lived-in and unfeigned because, as comedians, they know how to draw out the absurdity of sorrowful circumstances. As detached siblings who have lost much of their former lust for life, Wiig and Hader are at once outlandish and yet strangely relatable because their interactions not are drowned in saccharine sincerity. Instead, the actors simply portray the twins as dejected and disoriented, but not without an awareness of life’s ludicrous landfalls.
The plot hinges on the idea that, even though siblings can be distanced by miles and years, their connection can never be severed. Twins opens with a flashback of the young siblings playing dress-up with their masked father, who hands them a toy skeleton. Though it’s a potentially heavy-handed metaphor when coupled with Maggie’s somber voice-over, (“I don’t know. Maybe we were doomed from the beginning”), the trinket simply serves as a reminder of their hollowed expectations for a bright future. It also underscores the mindsets of the twins as the film cuts to Milo and Maggie as despondent, dissatisfied adults, independently attempting to end their lives.
Milo is closer to successfully committing the deed, which lands him in the hospital. With no other family to turn to, Maggie cautiously offers him a room in her suburban New York abode. She lives with her grinning, welcoming fiancé, Lance (a terrific Luke Wilson), in the twins’ childhood hometown, and Milo’s return stirs up barely-stifled grievances amongst the siblings, their disaffected mother (Joanna Gleason), and Milo’s former high school English teacher (Ty Burrell).
The film lacks cloying moments since the actors are so adept at presenting the inane alongside the aching. Wiig’s previous attempt to burst into such dramatic territory left much to be desired. In last spring’s Hateship Loveship, her performance felt as if she was unsure of whether to fully detach her comedic inclinations in favor of earnest, restrained convictions or to enhance her role with the subtle underlining of wry delicacy. Wiig couldn’t commit to either approach, and consequently her performance—and the film—fell flat. In Twins, the actress picks a side: a sobering portrayal of a woman coming undone, augmented with a hint of fleeting facetiousness. A potential recipe for disaster, and yet the outcome is exemplary.
Hader approaches his role with a bit more fanfare. As Milo, a gay, out-of-work, suicidal actor, Hader brings subdued ornamentation to his role–think SNL’s Stefon on a heavy rotation of sedatives. Even though his character favors a bit more flair in his actions, together Hader and Wiig find the balance of gloomy dispositions and eager appreciation for the random roads of life yet to come.
Once an audience has placed an actor inside an intractable sphere of expectations, that bubble is nearly impenetrable. But Wiig and Hader have discovered the trick to bursting from within their comedic confines, and in The Skeleton Twins, their smirking chemistry and unequivocal support are not only perceptible but downright nourishing. Their characters may often make despicable decisions, but we hold our bated breath waiting for their next ill-conceived life choices because we know that we can laugh—and cry—with them.