EIFF 2014: The Skeleton Twins review

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader take centre stage for The Skeleton Twins, a dark, funny comedy with plenty going for it...

While Bridesmaids allowed Kristen Wiig to provide a platform for herself as a lead, it might come as a surprise to find that her co-star here – Bill Hader – has never played one himself. Like Wiig, you may recognise him from Saturday Night Live or from myriad supporting and scene stealing roles in other comedies.

The Skeleton Twins sees Wiig and Hader play twins – Maggie and Milo – whose lives have not worked out as they’d hoped. After seeing each other for the first time in ten years, they rekindle their bond and try to support each other as their lives continue to fall apart. Due to their years of working together, Wiig and Hader’s relationship as brother and sister is hugely plausible. Aided by their comic abilities – and a little improv – the script (by Black Swan‘s Mark Heyman and director Craig Smith) is consistently funny and moving, revelling in the grey areas and complexities of the characters and laughing morbidly at the darkness that ensues.

Make no mistake, this is a dark film, but it’s so well balanced that the comedy elements blend into dramatic moments, and it’s entertaining enough that you can overlook its occasionally contrived narrative. There are a few ‘and then’ storytelling moments which aren’t explained in the final cut, though given Smith’s explanation of a few subplot revolutions being excised in editing, it’s possible that these were explained in earlier versions of the film. Still, in a key scene it is somewhat inexplicable that one character knows another’s location and is able to get there in such a timeframe. Most people, though, will be willing to allow this under narrative necessity, because the characters are so likeable even for all their faults.

The characterisation is completely successful, the script’s main strength, and are carried off with aplomb by the cast. Luke Wilson’s as good as he’s ever been as Lance, Maggie’s husband. Initially coming across as something of a jock, Wilson manages to make his mannerisms comical but ultimately endearing, convincing us that he’s a nice guy, even if you don’t believe Maggie’s initial insistence. This transition is all the more effective when something serious happens to him. Ty Burrell, fresh from being the best human in the last Muppets film, plays against his Modern Family role as Milo’s ex-teacher in a largely serious part.

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In terms of awards ceremonies and Oscars, the film’s innate funniness may count against it, because comedies only get to win awards if they’re made by Scorsese and are about utter dickheads. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that comedians often make great actors (unsurprisingly considering their extensive sketch and stand up performance requirements), and being given more dramatic roles than usual sees Wiig and Hader excel.

Hader, playing a depressed gay man, has the air of the eternal little brother about him: snickersome, mischievous, impetuous. He imbues him with a slight camp both in voice and body language, but what’ll mainly stay with you is the morbid snark. Wiig’s Maggie is, if anything, even better at deluding herself, more withdrawn but also more conventional and less likely to rub people up the wrong way. While Milo gets the funnier quips, Wiig has to do the majority of the emotional heavy lifting (though that’s not to say Hader doesn’t demonstrate range). Overall, though, they’re at their best while complimenting each other. The actors, like the family unit they’re portraying, are stronger together, culminating in an unforgettable scene involving turning up the volume on an Eighties classic (a song, not Steven Seagal).

Ultimately the balance between a plausible ending and a happy one isn’t quite balanced as well as the rest of the movie, but his second film marks Craig Smith out as someone whose dialogue and gift for nuanced characterisation exceeds many of his contemporaries in American comedy. Certainly here the strength of the central sibling pairing is going to produce a strong response in anyone with a similar relationship, but there’s more to all of these people than that. Even the darkest of the characters has a moment that invites sympathy.

There are many positives in The Skeleton Twins, some of which stem from what it is not. It isn’t reliant on improvisation (Smith apparently cut some excellent improv for character reasons), and manages to make you interested in difficult people, none of whom are obnoxious or loud. Its characters are adults, trying to make their lives work, and not eternal children. Its happy ending is not your standard one.

It might change your life, it might not (except, obviously, in the technical sense of having done something for two hours), but Skeleton Twins will definitely make ‘em laugh, and it will probably make ‘em cry.

The Skeleton Twins screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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4 out of 5