Bill Hader brings depth, humor and nuance to “The Skeleton Twins”

Hader and former "SNL" co-star Kristen Wiig delight in a comedic drama about estranged siblings

Published January 21, 2014 5:25AM (EST)

     (Reed Morano)
(Reed Morano)

“SNL” alumns Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are the riveting co-stars of “The Skeleton Twins,” a dark, witty and charming comedic drama about two siblings who rekindle their relationship after 10 years of estrangement.

The movie opens with a voice-over from Maggie (Wiig), who describes a troubled childhood, setting the somber undertone of the movie. Flashing forward to the present, we meet her brother Milo (Hader), a gay man struggling to find work as an actor, just before he attempts suicide. After the failed attempt, Milo reluctantly moves in with Maggie -- who carries secrets of her own -- and her cheery, simple-minded husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). While living together, the two siblings are forced to confront their own personal issues in order to help each other.

The issues, which include depression, abandonment and sexual abuse, are so severe and multifarious that with any lesser cast, script or directing, Milo’s and Maggie’s struggles would seem manufactured and melodramatic -- serious-sounding but ultimately hollow incidents meant to move a plot forward. But “Skeleton Twins” avoids this trap, instead creating a rich and honest portrayal of human suffering and how that can break some relationships and form others.

The film's relatability comes from director Craig Johnson’s perspective that people need comedy to process tragedy. In an interview with Salon, director Johnson observed that the movie, like life, walks a “tightrope between the funny and the sad.”

“I wanted the movie to feel like real life and real life is never split into genres,” he said. “It’s never a tragedy and it’s never a comedy; it’s often both, sometimes in the same day, sometimes within the same argument with people.”

And Hader and Wiig walk on that tightrope like experts. “I think often funny people are very honest and they take everything in, including the sadness,” said Johnson, who favors casting comedians. While Wiig has taken on dramatic roles, most recently in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” this is Hader's first such role. And Hader delivers, making him the unexpected delight of the film. Milo is nerdy, witty, smart, sensitive, cynical and brooding. “What I’ve found in life is sometimes the most depressed people I know also happen to be the smartest, funniest and most lively people that I know,” said Johnson -- an observation that Hader makes real on-screen. “Very rarely is it like that clichéd girl in the depression medicine commercial looking out the sad window.”

Those looking for a happy, uncomplicated ending, however, will be disappointed. The film’s outlook is undoubtedly dark: In one scene, Milo tells Maggie that he attempted suicide because he failed to achieve his dreams. Maggie responds not with encouragement or inspiration, but instead explains that lowered expectations are the way of the world. “The rest of us are just trying to walk around not being disappointed with the way our lives turned out,” she says. It may not be an inspiring message, but for Maggie and Milo, it’s certainly an honest one.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at

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Bill Hader Comedy Craig Johnson Drama Film Kristen Wiig Luke Wilson Sundance 2014 The Skeleton Twins