Sitting beside me at the Acura Lodge in Sundance, Bill Hader, tired from a late-night celebrating the premiere of Craig Johnson's "The Skeleton Twins," and without his partner-in-crime Luke Wilson ("it was the altitude"), compared playing a more serious character to the transition Tom Hanks made from "Bosom Buddies" to "Captain Phillips." Or, I chimed in, his "SNL" colleague Will Forte's shift from "MacGruber" to "Nebraska."
The transition from comic to serious actor has been done, yes, but few have accomplished it as well as Hader, who plays Milo to Kristen Wiig's Maggie, a set of estranged twins who slowly swim back to closeness when both simultaneously find their lives crumbling, and their coping skills failing epically.
After a tragedy, Maggie drags aspiring (and failing) actor Milo from sunny L.A. back to their cute but claustrophobic hometown, Nyack, New York. Once there, the gay Milo has a front-row seat to Maggie's wobbling marriage to normal-as-they-come Lance (Luke Wilson in a straight-man role), pursues his former high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell) and invites his New Age mother (Joanna Gleason) over for a disastrous family reunion.
As the family secrets pile up and pop open like raw blisters, Milo and Maggie emerge as real people, screwed-up and self-defeating, sure, but complex and relatable. Love hasn't always been strong enough to keep them together, but humor has. The movie's signature scene is a crowd-pleasing sequence that echoes the big finale of "Little Miss Sunshine," as Milo lip-syncs to Jefferson Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and gradually melts Maggie into a duet.
In another scene, as the siblings go out together on their favorite holiday, Halloween, Milo in drag that would put Dame Edna to shame, and Maggie as a grizzly zombie of a cowgirl, their twin-closeness is a shining thing of beauty, as twinkly as a Disney princess gown bought at Walmart for the occasion. Of course, beauty rarely lasts long. The past catches up and trips the pair. And then the question becomes: Can they ever escape the skeletons in their closet, or at least put them to rest?
Wiig and Hader have "SNL" history to keep them together. Like her partner in late-night, Wiig has the Hanks superpower to cross from light comedy to deep emotion. Watching her, I kept thinking that this is what Jennifer Aniston keeps trying, and frequently failing to accomplish – to be America's sweet-and-sour-heart.
As Wiig showed in "Bridesmaids" and "Paul," she has the chops to do broad comedy and then dive deep, bringing the audience along without hesitation. Sure, she's sexy, but she doesn't mind being shown in an unflattering light – and that happens often enough here.
"The Skeleton Twins," written by Johnson and Mark Heyman (who co-penned "Black Swan"!), also contains a subtle and complex treatment of a difficult topic – [spoiler alert] relationships between underage boys and their male teachers that turn sexual. But this subplot never feels like a treatise: It evolves naturally, if painfully, out of Milo's character.
In this subplot, as Milo rekindles a relationship with Rich, now both consenting adults, the script allows the audience to see the elements of love and lust twined around what began as an improper and possibly exploitative connection between teacher and student. The movie allows both characters and viewers to judge: but the contradictory feelings it inspires surprise and enlighten.
Talking to a distributor over dinner on Park City's Main Street, the executive explained that the problem with "The Skeleton Twins" from a business standpoint is marketing a drama with name-brand comedic talent. With a Sundance movie this good – it was my favorite of the movies I saw at the festival -- it doesn't seem so difficult.
This is a very, very funny movie – so it's a comedy – embedded in a dramatic situation that's deeply moving – so it's a drama. It's not that odd hybrid camel – the dramedy. It's more like a breath mint and a candy mint: two taste treats that go well together.