There’s a truly fantastic scene about half-way through Craig Johnson’s dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, where Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig lip-synch to Starship’s hilariously 80’s anthem, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” It’s been highlighted ad nauseam in the TV spots for the film, but it’s even more dynamic and infectious on the big screen. Its almost painfully prolonged unfolding is built upon the rising tension of Wiig’s character being supremely pissed off right now and refusing to play along with her brother’s antics until that moment comes where she just can’t take it anymore and has to join the insanity. The look on Wiig’s face as she reluctantly (yet deep down so happily) mouths the lyrics, “Let them say we’re crazy…” is a perfect moment for this gifted actress inside a wildly imperfect film. Hader, likewise, is borderline idiot genius with his mannerisms and body language. It’s a shame then that writer-director Craig Johnson saddles them with such obvious clichés.
The dysfunctional sister-brother relationship dramedy has long been the bastion of many an indie filmmaker. Most of these films star Laura Linney (think You Can Count on Me, or probably the ultimate example of this sub-genre, The Savages). Wiig is an interesting substitute for Linney, as the comedic actress has never been allowed to go dramatic before, but with such a great built-in chemistry with Hader (who is most beloved as SNL’s Stefon, the worst NYC tour guide EVER) the two click whether they’re lip-synching to bad music or revealing devastating secrets to each other.
And it’s those dark family secrets that burden the characters and the film. All the clichés are there. A romanticized troubled childhood, complete with the death of a beloved parent and estrangement from the flighty other. Adultery. Failed suicide attempts. An unsavory past triste with a teacher that bears all the hallmarks of child abuse. One sibling running away to be an actor, the other settling for a dull domestic life with a nice-enough but unsatisfying husband played by Luke Wilson. The film does at least seem to be self-aware as Hader refers to himself as a “gay cliché.”
What’s most surprising, then, despite the clichés, is how effective the dramatic parts become, even if the darkness weighs a bit too much. Johnson crafts compelling dialogue that sounds real, and Wiig and Hader eviscerate the lines, delivering powerful moments of emotional outbursts that place the viewer as a “fly on the wall” of their tragio-comic lives. The climactic screaming match between the two is startling in its ruthless efficiency as it slices down to the bone. Wiig cuts deep into Hader, and you truly feel for this likable though despicable and hopeless pair. Johnson had an opportunity to go “full dark” and suck the marrow from the characters…but, hey…this is a comedy right? Maybe? I dunno. It ends with another set of clichés, that make you feel falsely happy.
The lasting moments however, are pleasing enough. You feel like you got to know two real people with scripted problems, and you see the emergence of two previously unsung acting talents. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in dramatic roles? Indeed…Let them say we’re crazy. What do they know?
Written by David H. Schleicher