Every cast of Saturday Night Live produces its comedy buddies. Those are the guys who become pals on the show, often pair up in sketches, and then go on to be in movies or television together, as the camaraderie that goes on behind the scenes leads to fruitful creative pairings and lifelong friendships in many cases. Seriously, a lot of those cast members probably owe that show for finding their best pals. But the chemistry between real life friends is obvious most of the time, and it's a huge advantage in a movie like this, where the formulaic and somewhat cliched nature of the screenplay means it's entirely up to the actors to bring something more original to the screen. Luckily, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are so likable and charismatic together that they elevate this movie head and shoulders above the script and they alone are reason enough to see it.
The Skeleton Twins joins the ranks of family dramedies that are so common with indie filmmakers, and is another entry that explores the dynamic of an adult brother and sister, a relationship that's often proven more interesting and unique ground in film than that of two sisters or two brothers (I'm thinking of other memorable indies which produced pairs like Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Laura Linney in The Savages, or Mark Ruffalo and Linney again in You Can Count On Me). This one is funnier than those, and frankly gives us the most believable brother/sister pairing of all, thanks to the instantly familiar and familial interplay between Wiig and Hader, who are so effortlessly natural together that they manage to make every nuance of affection and dialogue seem genuine.
They play adult twin siblings Maggie and Milo, both deeply troubled since childhood, who've been estranged from each other for ten years despite their seemingly psychic-like bond. That link is displayed by the opening scene where Maggie is gazing in the mirror, about to down a handful of sleeping pills when she gets a call from a hospital in Los Angeles, telling her that her brother's just been admitted for an attempted suicide. Maggie sets off immediately to retrieve him, and though it's a melancholy reunion, it only takes a day or two for the two of them to fall into their old habits of wisecracks and sarcastic rapport, and Maggie takes him back to their hometown in upstate New York to recuperate.
Milo is an out of work gay actor with a tendency towards depression (like his sister and their late father), and as he settles in with Maggie and her new husband Lance, we see how he generates those depressive tendencies and eventually learn the traumas they're stemmed from (it partially involves an inappropriate past relationship with a former teacher, played by Modern Family's Ty Burrell in a dramatic turn). The same goes for Maggie, whose seemingly perfect life masks an equally disturbed pathology, as she cannot make herself be happy with the "puppy dog" nice guy Lance (played with welcome and unexpectedly subtle shading by Luke Wilson) and is continuously drawn into affair after affair. The dark past they share haunts their present lives, and this could be some dangerously depressing material as a movie, but Wiig and Hader pull off the dramatic moods as well as the easygoing interplay between their characters with zest and incredible appeal. It's very impressive to see these two comedy vets vacillate between the funny and the dark, and Hader especially is quite the revelation. This character fits him like a glove and allows him to be at turns sad, funny, and self-absorbed, yet remain inherently likable and so charismatic that you could watch him all day and believe everything he does and says, no matter that some of the situations are heavy-handed or dialogue campy. He always feels like a real person, not simply a character on a page.
The scenes between the two siblings make this film worthwhile, and luckily, that's most of the movie. Whether they're cracking each other up, confessing their darkest secrets, or viciously insulting each other in the place they know it'll hurt the most (as often only family can do), Hader and Wiig are dynamite. As for the film overall, there are some interludes that feel straight out of family indie cliche (an awkward dinner with Mom, a ridiculously quirky neighbor, some symbolic goldfish- I get really annoyed by symbolic objects and/or animals), and there's more than a little predictability in the script (you can always tell when two people are going to fight, then apologize, then fight for real and this time it's serious, etc.). But when the actors are this good and this watchable, you tend not to care so much as you simply sit back and enjoy watching them, even during the more formula driven aspects of the story, which is from writer-director Craig Johnson. And we're thankful for the buddies that SNL produces, because chemistry this effortless is a rare and wonderful thing, and it can turn a movie that might otherwise be forgettable into a genuinely affecting experience.
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