Review: Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader leave 'SNL' behind with 'The Skeleton Twins'
PARK CITY - This is probably the last thing co-writer and director Craig Johnson wants to hear, but watching his new dramedy "The Skeleton Twins" Saturday afternoon, I was struck by a recurring thought: Why didn't Lorne Michaels produce more movies like this one?
The "Twins" in question, Maggie and Milo, are played by longtime "Saturday Night Live" veterans Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Wiig left the iconic comedy showcase two years ago while Hader departed this past May. Michaels, the show's longtime producer, spent the '90s grabbing the characters created on his show and making mostly uninspiring product (the first "Wayne's World" aside). He deviated a bit in the '00s with "Mean Girls," "Hot Rod" and "Baby Mamma," but couldn't' resist throwing "MacGruber" into theaters. "Twins" is the sort of low budget film that shows the wide range of talent of two actors he made the centerpieces of his show. Wiig has made a number of independent films over the past few years, but she's never been this good. Hader has been the secret weapon in comedies such as "Superbad" and "The To Do List," but this is his first chance to show his real dramatic range in a feature film. So, Mr. Johnson, nice job bringing the best out of these longtime friends and colleagues.
"Twins" has been a project Johnson and his co-writer Mark Heyman ("Black Swan") have been trying to get made even before he directed his debut feature, "True Adolescents" in 2009. And, at times, the reason it took so long shows. The picture begins with Milo attempting suicide in Los Angeles and his sister Maggie considering the same in New York until she gets a call about her brother's attempt. The paternal twins hadn't spoken to each other in 10 years, but Maggie decides to bring him back East to recuperate. While both Maggie and Milo immediately seem to have their own personal issues, Maggie's husband Lance (Luke Wilson's best feature work in recent memory) is an everyday guy's guy and it's clear Milo doesn't see Maggie ending up with him. But conflicts, secrets and family history are slowly revealed and by the end the audience clearly understands why this seemingly perfectly paired set of siblings have been out of touch for so long. Unfortunately, the film's climax can't live up to the rest of its promise.
Hader received a significant amount of buzz before the film's Sundance Film Festival opening and while the talented comedic actor does display some serious dramatic chops, it's Wiig who is the real surprise. In her previous indies, Wiig seemed to play it a bit too subtly, too seriously, in order to tell the audience, "Hey, understand, I'm not gonna be funny here." That might not have been a conscious decision on her part, but that's what the work conveyed. In "Twins," Wiig does a superb job of balancing both the serious moments and the comedy without making either seem forced. You clearly understand Maggie's conflict with her seemingly "perfect" life and that's mostly thanks to the "Bridesmaids" star. Wiig was perfectly fine in Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" last year. In "Twins," she's turned the corner into impressive.
Johnson and Heyman give Milo a backstory that involves a high school scandal and a former teacher played by Ty Burrell. It's meant to be the catalyst for Milo and Maggie's rocky relationship, but it probably doesn't have the impact either writer was hoping for. Heyman clearly wanted Hader to play Milo a bit effeminate, oh wait, we didn't tell you Milo was gay? Yes, he is, and Hader wonderfully makes sure Milo isn't the recurring cliche he could have been.
The strongest parts of "Twins" are when Wiig and Hader are together. Where Johnson shows real skill (as opposed to John Slattery's direction of "God's Pocket") is balancing some very commercial comedy elements (mostly in the first half of the film) with the film's more dramatic drag-out fights. Nothing feels out of place (well, one "Stepmom" musical moment does, but that's such a crowd-pleaser you have to forgive it) and that's a credit to Johnson's direction. You just wish that third act had a more original climax.
As for its acquisition potential, there is enough commercial material to make a mini-major seriously consider picking it up. If this was James Schamus' Focus Features, that studio would be a perfect fit. With the Film District team now running Focus, that may not be the case. In any event, "The Skeleton Twins" will absolutely hit a theater in your neck of the woods sometime later this year.