Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig do something in The Skeleton Twins, their new movie, that a lot of other comedic actors can't do: they take what they do best and merge it with a sensibility that helps them transcend their shtick. Call it the The Robin Williams Syndrome, I guess, but when many great comedians try to make dramatic turns they often bring along their old stand-up/sketchy baggage with them, and the dramas they are in "make room" for this, or try to erase it all together. Think of Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go, or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, or Steve Martin in Pennies from Heaven, or Robin Williams in most anything, and you get the idea: their "funny" personas take over the atmosphere and what results is a movie about them trying to alter who they are, without maintaining a sense of what the actual movie is trying to get at.
Hader and Wiig maintain their off-kilter freakish comedic selves in The Skeleton Twins, but they use their Saturday Night Live skills to hone in on how actual off-kilter, freakish human beings interact, damage and sometimes save one another. It's a movie that starts with two suicide attempts, and ends with one, and yet there is a light touch to Craig Johnson's direction and writing so that the drama, even though it's pretty melodramatic, becomes integral to the comedic undertones, to Hader's and Wiig's skills at being weirdos trying to figure out how not to drown in their own weirdness. They play a brother and sister who haven't spoken to each other in over ten years, and are reunited after Hader's character winds up in the hospital after slicing his wrists. Through the course of the movie, they become entangled yet again in each other's lives and revert back to their old selves. Somewhere in there are other fantastic performances by Luke Wilson, as Wiig's goofy sweet husband, Joanna Gleason as their pseudo-loving, New Age mother, and Ty Burrell as Hader's weak-kneed ex-lover (who seduced him in high school while he was his English teacher).
The Skeleton Twins moves forward effortlessly, and its pleasures come from both moments and the momentum it takes to make those moments feel actual and earned. But the main scene I recall, the one that truly gets at how Hader and Wiig escape themselves and become actual people, is halfway in, when Wiig, a dental hygienist, cleans her brother's teeth. She gives him some laughing gas to get over initial fears, and the scene unfurls from that, with Wiig cleaning Hader's teeth and then both of them getting in on the gas, until finally they wind up in the records room of the dental office, sliding down to the floor and remembering who they used to be and how easy was to be that. There's some ad libbing, some face-making, some shtick, and yet it all feels completely necessary, even organic. You feel like you're eavesdropping instead of watching a movie, and that intimacy makes the whole film snap to suddenly. Wiig and Hader become true brother and sister right before your eyes, and the ache of their love and torture becomes not just stylized "hurt," but something you can connect with, even compare to real life.
That's not comedy or tragedy or drama -- it's art.