Infectious, touching, and mordantly funny, The Skeleton Twins is a lovingly calibrated mixture of guilt, heartbreak, and hopefulness. Fitting nicely into the category of “downbeat comedy” and featuring compulsive promiscuity, childhood sexual abuse, and various grades of mental illness, it’s free of sanctimony and full of knockout performances.
Maggie (Kristin Wiig, Bridesmaids) is a dental hygienist living in a small New York town, while Milo (Bill Hader, Adventureland) is a struggling actor in LA whose recent breakup sent him off the deep end. Mutually unsuccessful suicide attempts bring the siblings back together for the first time in 10 years. When Milo moves in with his estranged sister, he discovers that she’s been having problems of her own, chief of which seems to be her marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson), an adorable puppy-dog of a husband who fails to excite her. Milo’s issues are complicated after he contacts and confronts an old ex (Ty Burrell), whose relationship left lasting scars.
The Skeleton Twins plays to the antic gifts of its stars and proves to be a fine showcase for Hader and Wiig, two SNL luminaries in the roles of troubled twins reunited by near-tragedy. Milo and Maggie share a whip-crack banter that longtime skit partners know how to muster effortlessly. Hader and Wiig show their capacity for dramatic material, demonstrating how their comic shorthand transfers to a darker register. The two veterans have an obvious rapport, deep enough to evoke the ties, entanglements, and bloodletting of a real kinship. The film is worth a watch to see two reliably comic actors do some heavy dramatic lifting and tenderly spot for each other.
Director Craig Johnson (True Adolescents) also gets a few things right: his sophomore feature has a polished, autumnal look, a pair of terrific, sharply-etched lead performances, and some affecting moments where its protagonists bond. When Johnson’s intuition leads him to put these two old friends in a room and let them play, the sequence is worth admission all by itself: a priceless lip-syncing dance routine set to the 1987 Starship hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
Executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass (Your Sister’s Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed), The Skeleton Twins is a slight and predictable drama-by-numbers, not a wholly fleshed-out character study, and it’s regrettably tidy in that Sundance-workshop way. It suffers from both the flat hipster effect that can stunt independent films and from calculated mainstream touches. Nobody here takes a flying leap out of his or her comfort zone.
Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman, who won the screenplay prize at Sundance, follow a highly familiar indie-film template: the three-act dramedy, ending with redemption. It mines the territory of You Can Count on Me and The Savages with less aplomb. The Skeleton Twins is more like a movie than a story about real life, and it’s too bad: the performers are ready to rip. But most audiences will find it irresistibly winsome, and settle for wonderful actors doing some wonderful acting with writing that supports those efforts even as it confines them.
At its best, The Skeleton Twins exudes the vague unease of two putative grown-ups trying to stifle their awareness that the lives they’ve chosen neither fit nor suit them. Sometimes one has to smile through the tears. When they are with their kindred spirits, even the saddest skeletons can dance.