Movies starring Saturday Night Live (SNL) alumni have been hit or miss over the years. There have been certified classics — such as The Blues Brothers and Wayne's World — and unmitigated disasters — It's Pat, anyone? Even though The Skeleton Twins arrives as a vehicle for Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, two of SNL's most successful and best loved 21st-century performers, it's not really cut from the same cloth as, say, MacGruber. Produced by indie powerhouses Mark and Jay Duplass, helmed by fresh-faced indie director Craig Johnson, and with a Sundance-winning screenplay by Johnson and Black Swan scribe Mark Heyman, The Skeleton Twins has contemporary indie pic written all over it. If you're looking for Hader to do Stefon or Wiig to do her Target lady schtick, you will be sorely disappointed by The Skeleton Twins. But if you go in with an open mind and active sense of empathy, you'll find one of the best films of the year so far.
Hader and Wiig play Milo and Maggie Dean, a pair of twins who, we learn from an opening flashback, were irrecobly scarred by the death of their father when they were 14 years old. The adult Milo is a struggling actor, first seen drinking vodka and doting over his goldfish while blasting the Blondie classic "Denis" before settling into a warm bath to slice his wrists open. Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, Maggie gets the call from the hospital about her brother's suicide attempt just as she is about to swallow a handful of pills. Even though they haven't spoken in a decade, she puts her suicide attempt on the back burner to fly from suburban New York to Los Angeles and rescue her brother. But soon, it is impossible to tell who is rescuing whom.
Even though its two leads are brother and sister, The Skeleton Twins is kind of structured like a traditional romantic comedy: Sister meets brother; sister and brother grow together; sister loses brother; will they reunite in time to save themselves from self-destruction? In his hospital bed, a cold Milo initially rejects Maggie's "advances," saying he's fine, he just got a little drunk and melodramatic. She wants him to go back to New York with her to recover, but he says he has to stay and take care of his goldfish. But soon, they are jetting back to their upstate New York hometown, where Milo is introduced to Maggie's husband of two years Lance (Luke Wilson). Friendly, jovial, and a little shallow, Lance thinks he and Maggie have a happy marriage. He tells Milo that they are planning on starting a family, which surprises Milo, who knows that Maggie has never wanted kids. Lance is also unaware that Maggie is having an affair with her scuba instructor. Meanwhile, Milo looks up his first boyfriend, who turns out to be the worst possible person for him to reconnect with.
The stereotypical indie movie in 2014 is, like The Skeleton Twins, a combination comedy/drama that takes full advantage (some would say "wallows in") the no-frills, no budget aesthetic forced on the crew by economic reality. The best ones, such as Ira Sachs' Love Is Strange, use realism to drill down below the surface of the everyday world and reveal the emotional substrate beneath. But getting some laughs while maintaining the emotional truth of the characters is a delicate balance, and film festivals are littered with failed attempts. The Duplasses seem to have cracked the code of making post-mumblecore movies that look good and make sense, but in The Skeleton Twins, they have as their secret weapons Wiig and Hader. I harp on onscreen chemistry in my reviews, but Wiig and Hader's combined performances are the reasons why it is so important. They've been playing gonzo characters together on SNL for so long (they both started SNL in 2005) that they share the screen like a pair of seasoned jazz players share a stage, stepping back to let the other one solo for a moment before seamlessly joining for the chorus. Director Johnson keeps the pacing tight but not rushed, and cinematographer Reed Morano's work is flawless and lyrical. But The Skeleton Twins is Wiig and Hader's movie. With Maggie and Milo, they take what could have been stock indie characters and created two broken, funny, fully realized people. Watching them play together is sheer joy, something that indie films and Hollywood need more of.