By Marshall Shaffer
Casting Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, two recent products churned out by the “Saturday Night Live” star-making factory, definitely leads to a certain set of expectations about what antics should follow. So when “The Skeleton Twins” begins with two very serious suicide attempts by its leads, who play long-estranged siblings, all assumptions fly right out the window.
Yet that’s only where the reversals begin since co-writer and director Craig Johnson refuses to let his film devolve into angst-ridden or melodramatic clichés. He charts a tricky tonal course but manages to navigate it seamlessly. “The Skeleton Twins” is thus hard to categorize since it so effortlessly defies the normally clean-cut division between comedy and drama.
To label it a dramedy seems to miss the mark, too. The serious and the sardonic do not merely coexist in “The Skeleton Twins;” they are interwoven to the point of being nearly indistinguishable. The film’s closest blood relative might be 2007’s “The Savages,” which also concerned two acerbic siblings trading barbs over grave family issues. Johnson finds humor not merely a relief to the film’s drama but rather a means for exploring its repercussions more thoroughly.
But really, to compare “The Skeleton Twins” to anything at all does it a disservice. Johnson fashions something wholeheartedly organic with his film. It is not beholden to any pattern or formula but rather to capturing the truths of existence. With his detailed and nuanced portraiture of the two leading characters, Milo and Maggie, Johnson allows their specific aches and struggles to illuminate those that hit closer to home.
The siblings’ thwarted suicides immediately plunges us into the deep end with them, which gives us immediate cause to recognize them as individuals wrestling with some powerful demons. Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman do not overload us with exposition telling us what they are, however. He presumes that viewers are smart enough to pick up Milo and Maggie’s backstory along the journey, a welcoming and respectful gesture towards an audience being increasingly accustomed to the force-feeding model.
This strategy lends “The Skeleton Twins” a feel of intense and ineffable lifelikeness. People are always affected by the looming specter of their pasts, though they usually don’t explicitly pronounce the ways in which its haunting influences rears its head in the present tense. Just because these understood assumptions are never verbalized does not mean they are not important, nor does it make them any less genuine.
Maybe it’s all those years slipping into guise after guise together on “Saturday Night Live” (not to mention “Adventureland“) that enable Hader and Wiig to slip so effortlessly into this set of assumed codes. But whatever let them to bring about the rawness and veracity of “The Skeleton Twins” ought to be emulated more often. Both create characters that struggle with big issues – Milo with fallout from his controversial first love, Maggie with marital dissatisfaction – yet do not let those problems define them.
Instead, Milo and Maggie are regularly imperfect people, wishing they could erase old mistakes and avoid making new ones to further complicate matters. They do not announce their frustration with words, although that certainly does not stem from a lack of insightful dialogue. Johnson wisely defers to letting Hader and Wiig deploy one of their chief comedic weapons – the musculature of their faces – to convey all their frustrations and anxieties.
In those indicative contours, there is pain as well as pleasure; there is heartbreak as well as humor; there is loss as well as love. “The Skeleton Twins” captures all these contradictions of being, frequently all at once. A lot of emotions swirl around during the movie, though one prevails by the end: gratitude that Johnson, Heyman, Hader, and Wiig have brought something so meaningfully real to the screen. A-
Skeleton Twins opens on Friday downtown Winston-Salem at a/perture Cinema. Get showtimes and tickets HERE.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs.