MOVIE REVIEW: The Skeleton Twins
"THE SKELETON TWINS"-- 3 STARS
Actors will tell you that the hardest genre to act is comedy, not drama, especially on a movie set. Drama reads clearly and can be felt with its emotion. Comedy needs a catalyst. On a stage or in front of a live audience, comedic performances are fueled and fed by the pulse of the audience. When shooting a film, you can only trust what's written on the page. You have to hope you've got good material that will play well with viewers and the wait time for the full reaction is months down the road when the film is finally screened or released. It's a complete guessing game and the greater acting challenge.
In looking at "The Skeleton Twins" starring "Saturday Night Live" veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, the mirror opposite of that acting challenge is at hand. Can actors extremely good at comedy make the transition to drama? Also, will the audience buy it and accept a different side of acting from what they are used to seeing from familiar faces?
It's a different pendulum shift of acting range that can be difficult to achieve. The textbook example for this is the late Robin Williams. He was a funnyman that could do drama and make it look as natural as his comedy. That said, outside of pure dark choices like "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia," even he found ways to draw smiles during his dramatic performances. The laughs still snuck in.
The key to this challenge of acting range for comedy performers that go dramatic is finding the right balance. How many laughs can be included to keep things approachable and optimistic? How many is too many that take away from the dramatic goal? Have too few and you're a downer. Have too many and your contrived and saccharin.
Thanks to their outstanding careers on "Saturday Night Live," Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are completely recognized, celebrated, and even typecast as total comedic performers. We've never seen them do real drama until "The Skeleton Twins." The success of your like or dislike of the film will come from your desire to either want more comedy or not believe the drama.
Hader and Wiig play twin siblings from a broken home in the fall foliage of small-town upstate New York. Milo (Hader) is an openly gay and struggling actor who moved to Los Angeles. Maggie (Wiig) stayed home, grew up, and is now an uninspired housewife to a genuinely nice guy named Lance (Luke Wilson). Something about both of them is off because we are introduced to them through simultaneous failed suicide attempts. Milo was depressed after a break-up and slits his wrists in the bathtub. The hospital phone call to his one relative Maggie comes right when she's about to swallow a handful of pills.
Without knowing it and without talking for the last ten years, Milo and Maggie need each other. They are a good team and were very close as kids, especially after their own father took his life when they were teens. To get Milo back on his feet, Maggie invites Milo to come back to New York and stay with her and Lance. Back together, they quickly fall back into their old quirky act, but not without a few revealed secrets and renewed complications.
For the most part, "The Skeleton Twins" works to showcase Hader and Wiig's unseen range. The clear chemistry between these two former television co-workers crosses over nicely into serious drama. They can pull it off convincingly.
The challenge still remains the balance between comedy and drama. If you want Hader and Wiig's comedy, you're going to think the drama gets in the way. You would be missing the point to do that. "The Skeleton Twins" is a respectable and approachable family drama that is short on cliches and high on smart questions. Writers Craig Johnson (who's also the director) and Mark Heyman won the dramatic screenwriting award for this film at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and that achievement is well-deserved.
If you're willing to respect Hader and Wiig's combined effort to be serious from time to time, can you get over their comedy side still coming through? That's a fair question. Just as you witness in the trailer for the film, there are warm and fuzzy lip-syncing dance breaks, dress-up scenes, and plenty of joking around still between Hader and Wiig. There was never not going to be some laughs when you put those two in the same room and scenes.
The comedic elements do buoy the darkness of the material and, for the most part, don't take away from the real drama at hand. More works than doesn't for "The Skeleton Twins." It's noting earth-shattering, but it's a step above other weaker "dramedy" efforts thanks to acting talent alone.
LESSON #1: WHEN CLOSENESS TURNS TO DISTANCE BETWEEN SIBLINGS-- Milo and Maggie are a classic case of siblings, twins even, that grew up very close but had their interests and goals take them separate places. They are amicable, but they came to operate in different worlds with Milo chasing fame and Maggie settling for less at home. There is a selfish catalyst or two revealed that started their divergence, but when back together they realize how much they missed each other.
LESSON #2: THE LIES WE TELL OTHERS TO SOUND OK-- The big hot button issues of this film's drama are depression and suicide. Those are the sticky subjects that don't play well when mixed and we have that multiplied here by two siblings. What makes it difficult for both of them are the lies they tell others to sound OK. Neither are OK. Both have their demons to sort out and come to terms with. Both tell lies when they should trust those closest to them that care about them. Be wary of people who say they're OK, but clearly don't look it. Some mask it better than others or try.
LESSON #3: THE DISAPPOINTMENT WITHIN BOTH HAPPINESS AND DEPRESSION-- What is examined as a root to some of that depression for both siblings is the disappointment found in happiness. Milo got what he wanted with leaving home and going to L.A. where we was more accepted, but didn't find happiness in it. The same has happened to Maggie where she has this great and giving husband but hides things from him and doesn't extend equal love due to perceived lack of personal happiness. Both are at the age where they are disappointed at how their lives have turned out. The sooner they come to terms with that or make changes, the better.