Friday, September 19, 2014



- For years, Bill Hader was the unsung MVP of Saturday Night Live - the modern-day Phil Hartman who simply elevated the quality of any sketch by virtue of being in it. Hader was effortlessly funny on SNL, but there was also a manic darkness to many of his characters that made you wonder if he might have a Jim Carrey-like ability to transition from comedy to drama. Well, wonder no longer. Bill Hader absolutely kills in THE SKELETON TWINS, a dramedy in which he gets to be very funny, but also show some previously-unseen dramatic depth. This is, quite simply, a total breakout performance for the SNL alum. The film pairs Hader with SNL colleague Kristin Wiig. The two play brother and sister, and the chemistry between them is incredibly naturalistic. There is a sense of intimacy with this film that helps to sell the drama. The laughs are bigger and the gut-punches hit harder because there is such a clear sense of authenticity that these actors bring to the table. The result is that, while THE SKELETON TWINS has some flaws, it's so earnestly likable that you can't help but be won over. Hader and Wiig's fantastic performances seal the deal.

The movie - from writer/director Craig Johnson - opens with Hader's Milo and Wiig's Maggie each contemplating suicide. Milo goes through with it first, and just as Wiig is about to do the same, she receives a call from the hospital that her estranged brother tried to off himself. The two live on opposite coasts and haven't spoken in ten years, but Maggie goes to see her brother - a failed actor living in LA - and convinces him to come live with her and her fiance in New York. So yeah .. as you can tell, the tone of this one is comedic, but the humor is decidedly pitch-black.

However, that's not to say that the film isn't ultimately uplifting. The characters go to some dark places, but the great joy of the film is seeing this brother and sister duo - who have each arrived at a pretty bleak place in their lives - help each other up and into the light. Before that can happen though, Milo and Maggie each have major obstacles to overcome. Maggie is married to Lance, a likable-enough lunkhead played by Luke Wilson, in classic Luke Wilson fashion. Lance is a pretty solid dude, but his basic-bro lifestyle is a bad match for Maggie. Maggie keeps her unhappiness repressed around Luke, only finding solace by going behind his back and cheating on him with any number of random men. Milo, meanwhile, seeks to get out of his failed-actor funk by reconnecting with an old lover. Problem is, the old lover (played with creepy cowardice by Modern Family's Ty Burrell) is Milo's old high school English teacher, with whom he had a nearly life-ruining affair as a teenager. Suffice it to say, both siblings are seemingly locked into downward-spiraling behavior patterns. Their only hope, cheesy as it may sound, is each other.

And again, what might have been unbearably emo somehow works in the capable hands of Hader and Wiig. The rawness of their performances - and the comedy chops they bring to the table to keep things from getting too self-serious - allow the movie to reach unexpected heights. The highest of those heights is an instant-classic sequence in which Hader's Milo turns up Starship's cheesy 80's ballad "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and coerces Wiig's Maggie into joining him in the lip-synced duet. Maggie resists at first, but soon enough, she gives in to the moment and, finally, Maggie goes full-Wiig, and Hader goes full-manic-awesome, and the scene is just transcendent in its sheer joy and greatness. And yet, as hilarious as it is to see these two SNL vets get goofy and riff off each other, there's a real power to the scene as well. The music provides the catalyst for these two troubled siblings to lift each other up out of the darkness - a theme that comes into play repeatedly throughout the film.

At times, I do think the movie overdoes it a little. The more cynical part of me had a few moments where I was tempted to roll my eyes a little, and shake my head at the contrivances the movie throws at us in order to get to some of its big emotional-catharsis moments. Still, Johnson does an admirable job of making most of the movie's emotional beats feel earned. The director seems to have a definite knack for creating and maintaining a moody, absorbing aesthetic.

THE SKELETON TWINS is a really worthwhile indie flick that is elevated by two fantastic lead performances. We've seen that Wiig can do more dramatic roles, but this to me is a coming-out party for Bill Hader as a more-than-viable dramatic actor. He's hilarious in the film, but also brings real rawness and pathos to the character of Milo. He and Wiig make even the smallest moments in this movie memorable.

My Grade: A-

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