The set-up for The Skeleton Twins sounds like every American indie film ever made: a pair of sarcastically minded, estranged siblings come together over a tragedy and are forced to take stock of their screwed up lives, leaning on each other for acceptance and guidance despite their sometimes constant squabbling. Fortunately, director and co-writer Craig Johnson and stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are able to rise above a stock premise to build a film around to deliver a bracing, emotional, and often hilarious dark comedy with a great deal of subtlety and a light touch.
Milo (Hader) has struggled for too long trying to make it in the entertainment industry on the West Coast, and following a harsh break-up, he decides he wants to commit suicide. He botches it and is picked up and brought to his old hometown in New York state by his nonplussed sister Maggie (Wiig), who despite a seemingly alright marriage also has suicidal thoughts. Compounded by memories of their father (who committed suicide) and a largely aloof and uncaring mother (a stellar single scene appearance from Joanna Gleason), Maggie is forced to take a hard look at her infidelity and inability to settle into domesticity with her lovable, doofus husband (Luke Wilson, in the best role he’s been offered in far too long) and Milo dangerously tries to start hooking up with the older, closeted, and now married family man (Ty Burrell) who nearly ruined his high school years.
Johnson isn’t building his film around a plot, but around the big reveals of epiphanies and hard to convey emotions, but for as much as he’s getting right as a filmmaker there are still a few things that feel somewhat off. He’s always leaning sometimes far too heavily on the visual and narrative conventions that too many American independent films have settled in on. Scenes where Milo’s gayness has to be expressed through his inability to perform manual labour or where the underlying darkness of Milo and Maggie’s relationship comes out during a quirky Halloween night out feel dangerously close to contrived clichés. It’s the kind of film that could stand to scale back on the big set pieces by about half, and it would be the better for it. (Although, I would keep the incredibly long scene where Milo starts lip-syncing to Starship and begging Maggie to join in because that’s actually something that becomes funnier the longer it goes on. Plus, that song can’t be cheap to license, so you might as well make the most of it, right?)
What Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman (who previously worked on the screenplay for Black Swan) get right, however, is a gentle and thoughtful look at depression, attempted suicide, and the aftermath brought on by loved ones who take desperate measures with their lives. When the film settles into its most humane moments, the emotionally tenuous, sometimes judging, and always loving relationship between Milo and Maggie feels like a well rounded and thought out brother and sister relationship. There are always hints from Johnson and his cast that we’ll never get the full story behind just how screwed up their family was because there are probably still things they will refuse to discuss after the end of the film. The chemistry between the leads – and also between Hader and Burrell – is what really brings the story to life.
It’s widely known that Wiig and Hader have a shared history by way of Saturday Night Live, so it should go without saying that they know each other’s rhythms as actors pretty well by now. It’s also pretty established that Wiig has an often untapped capacity to be a great dramatic actress. She’s slowly becoming the female equivalent of what Tom Hanks was in the 1980s: a performer who gets by on blending serious dramatic work and silly comedies in equal measure. Here, she gets the lesser of the two characters: a woman who can’t stop cheating and doesn’t want to admit to her husband that she secretly doesn’t want to have kids. On paper for most performers, this kind of role is the acting equivalent of a chip shot in golf: medium difficulty, but big gains if it works. Wiig goes the extra mile to make sure that Maggie is the less sympathetic of the two. While Milo recovers in his own way, she wallows in her own poor decisions. Wiig combines anger and depression nicely, but she also does a great job making it known that Maggie just wants to be loved despite having no possible understanding of what love truly means. She can’t see that Milo and her husband care about her, so she just assumes they must hate her all the time. It’s a tough sentiment to put across, but Wiig does it splendidly.
As for Hader, this role represents a complete game changer in his career; something I doubt anyone going into the film would expect he had in him. His Milo has an effortless and flamboyant kind of charm that peeks through his darker moments. He’s the epitome of someone who has to keep laughing to keep from crying and the kind of person for whom loneliness is the worst feeling in the world. Hader plays Milo as someone who’s smart, but desperately needy to a point where he’ll eventually push more people away than he’ll endear himself to. He seems to be the only sibling to realize that the siblings will eventually implode, but he’s trying everything in his power to make sure that doesn’t happen. Hader’s almost constant melancholy and pitch perfect comedic timing is one of the best sad clown acts I’ve seen in years, and part of me hopes that awards voters will keep him in mind as the year goes on.
But the film itself is still just pretty okay stuff, elevated by some exceptional acting and a script that has a more focused and nuanced approach than the direction. It’s worthwhile for the people involved, and ultimately that seems like the only main goal of The Skeleton Twins. It’s firmly about the characters and not too concerned with anything else. In that respect, the film succeeds nicely.