REVIEW: One might think from the cast that this is a comedy, and while there are some funny moments, “comedy” would be just about the last word one could use to describe this gem of a drama that stars two of our best current funny people working today. While that might be the gimmick the film marketing relies on to draw an audience, both Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, the film’s leads, quickly dispel the notion with their first appearance. The two play twins who have not spoken to each other in over a decade, estranged for a reason that we learn later is both devastating and heartbreaking for more than what it might suggest. They are both suffering from depression, a word that is too easily tossed around to describe things in life that are clearly not depressing, so when we see it in its real form it loses some weight. Here it is painfully heavy.
It begins in Los Angeles, with Milo Dean (Hader) in the throes of a breakup with a man we only see in a photograph. He is beyond rescuing and in a startling moment, reclines in a full tub as a swirl of crimson taints the water. Across the country in upstate New York, Maggie Dean (Wiig) is standing in front of a bathroom mirror with a handful of pills and a look of abandon in her eyes. It is only a phone call from a nurse in an L.A. hospital that stops her.
This might seem like a pretty aggressively bleak way to start a film, and it does set a tone, but it is not so much dark as compelling. Directed by Craig Johnson (True Adolescents), the opening serves as a place for the two dynamic characters to begin their journey, and because of their ambiguity, we want to know more. Of course, the fact that these people are Wiig and Hader make it more intriguing. Anyone familiar with their comedic work in film and on years of Saturday Night Live, might have a moment of pause as there is a kind of muscle memory reaction to seeing them that forces an expectation of laughter. That fades quickly and is replaced by a confidence that these two, perhaps because of their reputations, are perfectly cast.
Milo is a struggling actor with no agent and no prospects. As the trope goes, he is also a waiter and not good at his job. Maggie is settled into middle class boredom, working as a dental hygienist and married to a perfectly amicable, hard-working man who is so blandly average he is practically invisible. Maggie is playing house with the motivation of a grown up with a single LEGO brick. At least by bringing Milo into the house as he recovers, she has a new project, even if he is reluctant to let her in.
If that all sounds like the setup for a number of films with siblings trying to reconnect, that’s because it is, but like a few others that deserve praise for giving it something special, The Skeleton Twins manages to find a beat that feels right, even if the music is an old hit. That beat is led by Hader who pulls off a lead performance that is not just surprisingly good, it is redefining. Back in 2010, a similar phenomenon occurred when Jonah Hill, star of a long line of raunchy comedies found a supporting role opposite Brad Pitt in the Bennett Miller directed Moneyball and collectively shocked his fans and critics with a subdued, powerfully reflective performance that had everyone rethinking how to judge the actor. Hader is no less effective and is throughout, remarkably good. He has a tremendous burden as the role of a depressed, slightly effeminate homosexual man stunted by a tragically scandalous love affair with an older man while he was far too young, could have easily been a trap for which the wrong actor might have wallowed in parody or worse. Hader, who is straight, plays gay very well, as his beloved SNL character Stefon is testament. In fact, many have drawn a line from Stefon to Milo, though the two are separated by a chasm of differences. But no matter what divides them, most importantly, each of these character’s sexual preference is not the thing that defines them. Milo is gay, but his problems are not about that. Hader so powerfully embodies Milo as a traumatized directionless soul, it doesn’t matter who he seeks to fill his bed, only that those choices harm him. Johnson (who is gay), never lets Milo get cliché and deftly lets Hader realize the character in his own way while still keeping his lifestyle pertinent.
Wiig is no slouch either and while she’s tackled roles with more depth, she is impressive, especially when she makes a decision about a SCUBA instructor that tells us everything about her loneliness and the way she feels best to combat it. The guttural sound she emits when he takes her is startling effective and reveals more than a hundred words of exposition could have. She shines.
The film leaves a few of its minor characters a little undercooked but nonetheless is a rare little gem that knows the game very well but doesn’t always play by the rules. For that, it makes for some of the best in the genre. This is a must-see.
That Moment In: The Skeleton Twins
Scene Set-Up: (Spoiler Free) Milo has come to the small town of Nyack, NY to spend some time with his sister and lives in the home she and her husband share. It’s been an adjustment. Neither are prepared nor equipped to truly help the other even though both recognize the need to do so. To this point, Maggie has begun an extramarital fling that is entirely physical and bereft of any emotion, which is truly most of the problem. She is numb and treats her sexual trysts with contempt, like a knowing drug addict aware of the destruction but unable to break the cycle. Milo is no better. He has begun a relationship that he thinks is far more than what his lover is willing to provide, but it is wrong for far more many reasons than that. Working for Maggie’s husband Lance (Luke Wilson) as a landscaper, Milo is only half-committed to it and because he spent the night with someone, was late to work in the morning, which the unwaveringly accepting Lance quickly forgives. But for Maggie, now home wallowing in her own self-pity, it is the spark to ignite a fire. She berates his attitude and then screams into a pillow. Milo is defensive at first but then commits to a different plan of attack.
The Scene: (Timestamp 00:49:50): Obviously Maggie is hurting and Milo knows what he has done, but a solution isn’t coming in any way that either will be happy with. Time for some music. Milo edges his way to the stereo and plugs in his Mp3 player, cueing up a tune while Maggie questions him. Turning up the volume, in pops the opening chords to Starship‘s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, a wonderfully cheesy 80s pop love song that is, by design, very infectious. Milo lip-syncs the opening stanzas and gyrates to the upbeat song, goading her to join, though she stares blank-faced at him throughout his initial attempts. She knows what he is doing, but is too enraged to engage. Of course that soon breaks and by the mid-point of the song she is off the sofa and at his side, dancing and letting it go.
The use of a pop song is nothing new in film, of course, but their inclusion is nearly always meant to elicit an emotion or, more probable, sell a soundtrack. Some are grown from the moment, such as Simon and Garfunkel‘s Sound of Silence from The Graduate, Bob Seger‘s Old Time Rock and Roll from Risky Business, Peter Gabriel‘s In Your Eyes from Say Anything, Rihanna’s Diamonds in Girlhood, or even Queen‘s Bohemian Rhapsody from Wayne’s World to name only a few, but most feel forced and serve only as a distraction. This could easily have been the case here, but avoids it by a wide margin as it feels like something these two characters would naturally do. In fact, by Milo’s gestures alone, it was something they must have done as kids many, many times before. And that’s the power of the moment, in truth. They know it’s cliché. That’s the point, and yet Milo knows it will work. What’s really remarkable about the moment is its length. Typically, these pop song moments are brief, just enough to make sure the viewer knows the song and properly transitions the characters. Not this one. It goes a full four minutes and is a full four minutes of pure joy. But why?
Chemistry. With every exacting ingredient in place, including a wonderful little bit during all of this with Lance, this formula is one of the most explosively moving moments to come along in years. At one point, as Milo continues on, Maggie says–right about when we are thinking the same–”Okay. I got it.” But what Milo knows, and the film commits to, is that no, no she hasn’t. She hasn’t got it. She’s hearing but not listening. So he presses on, ever urging her to join him. That she does, and sheds herself free of it all for just a few minutes is incredibly rewarding as a viewer because, as credit to both actors, we are invested at this point and understand why they are here, feeling the way they do. Milo can’t express to his sister everything he has in his troubled heart, and when he does open his mouth, he tends to say it all wrong anyway. He knows this all to well, so he calls upon a pop rock group to speak for him and say the words he really means. She feels precisely the same.
Of course, the fantasy of the song’s conceit and the reality of their lives eventually come crashing apart and a test of the song’s sentiment is put upon them. Throughout the film, there is this subtle call back to a fish tank that weaves its way through the narrative from beginning to end, as we are all swimming in our own tiny tank with whomever is in the water with us. Sometimes the tank breaks and sometimes the hope of connection between the fish that lives in the water dies. And sometimes, we need to be rescued.
We can build this dream together
Standing strong forever
Nothing’s gonna stop us now
And if this world runs out of lovers
We’ll still have each other
Nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us
Ooh, all that I need is you
All that I ever need
And all that I want to do
Is hold you forever, ever and ever
©Albert Hammond and Diane Warren