Wiig and Hader elevate flawed 'Skeleton Twins'

Roadside Attractions

By Brian Burlage, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 28, 2014

In director Craig Johnson’s sophomore effort, “The Skeleton Twins,” the first thing we see is a man wearing a mask. It’s not a superhero mask, and it’s not quite a Halloween mask either. Rather, as the man leans over the camera we see that it’s a happy medium, a seemingly off-brand version of a Pennywise/Frank Anderson hybrid that’s too endearing to be scary. And from the first second of the first scene, the film centers itself on the idea that people wear all kinds of masks. Each character, however far from or close to normal, hides behind their self-constructed façades, barriers and lies. For 93 minutes, wall after wall is built and then breached, until it becomes cyclical. The real problem is, in being so determined to bury their mistakes, the characters obscure themselves from us, the viewers, as well.

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Between the two of them, Bill Hader (“Superbad”) and Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) have 15 years of experience at “Saturday Night Live.” They are, at heart, two of the goofiest and most original talents the show has produced, especially as Wiig’s big-haired Gilly and Hader’s gossipy socialite Stefon became sideshow staples. Since their departure from “SNL,” the two have steadily maintained the wacky friendship that defines their collaborative success. “Having worked together really helped me personally,” Hader stated in a recent interview, “because I was able to be vulnerable around Kristen. It was a new kind of part for me, and it was nice being there with someone you knew had your back and who you could fail in front of.” Wiig added shortly after, “And we have a very brother-and-sister vibe in real life.”

Hader and Wiig play Milo and Maggie, a brother-sister team dubbed “The Gruesome Twosome” by their father when they were younger. When we first see them as kids, they are, like their father, wearing masks. But they’re happy. Autumn light fills the room they roughhouse in, and it falls on their backs as they play outside by the pool, laughing and giggling freely. The movie itself keeps this feel of autumn; a sad air of decay infiltrates nearly every scene. Their lives string along like a single prolonged Halloween night, filled with mystery, darkness and strangeness that each seem, despite the duo’s best efforts, entirely inescapable. Only when we learn that Milo and Maggie impose this hardship on themselves do we truly understand how far behind the masks they hide.

The movie was co-written by Johnson and Mark Heyman, whose work includes “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan.” It’s easy to imagine their creative process – two friends in a room juggling lines, tossing them back and forth without having a clear sense of direction. Many of the scenes transpire in this way, and depend on the dialogue and the character’s subtle energies. Meaningful conversations build around seemingly inconsequential things like long-sleeved shirts, Halloween costumes and goldfish. Hader and Wiig’s performances are both thoughtful and heartfelt. In moments of unease or despair, they use the gravity of their talent to keep the scene from falling apart. Hader, in particular, delivers a confident and powerful performance as a sexually frustrated (and heartbroken) gay man, driven to insidious measures by his own unfailing desire for Rich (Ty Burrell, ABC’s “Modern Family”), his high school English teacher. Wiig’s character Maggie, meanwhile, is allegedly happy in her two-year marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson, TV’s “Enlightened”), but sleeps with several “bad” men on the side.

What makes “Skeleton Twins” so difficult to digest are the characters’ repeated, self-aware indulgences in the very things that harm them – and others – most. These issues comprise so much of the film’s drama, and after several of them are actually resolved, the characters simply create new ones. Their self-involvement and inward conflict become exhausting. It’s like they want to suffer. They want to remain within their microcosm of mutual self-torture. And as strong as the script and performances may be, the idea that a brother and sister, two best friends united by their unique place in the world, would prefer emotional turmoil for themselves and for each other just doesn’t hold up.