When we first meet Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie Dean (Kristen Wiig), the brother and sister at the heart of The Skeleton Twins, they’re on opposite sides of the country contemplating the same act: offing themselves. Milo gets just a little further along in his quest, necessitating that Maggie come and get him out of the hospital after they’ve gone a decade without seeing each other. Their reunion and subsequent journey together through the past and present wreckage of their lives make up the narrative of this intimate comedy/drama from first-time director Craig Johnson that skirts past a number of predictable passages on the winning performances of its two leads.
Milo is an LA-based actor whose career is going nowhere while Maggie lives in their upstate New York hometown with her kind but somewhat dim husband Lance (Luke Wilson), and has the kind of harmlessly dull life that can only be enlivened by a screaming affair with her hunky scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook). Milo’s return home to live with Maggie for a while also brings him back to ground zero of his scandalous teen romance with a high school teacher named Rich (Ty Burrell) — a romance that Milo is eager to resume as an adult even if Rich appears uninterested. Both Milo and Maggie have their secrets, but the biggest secret of all is that they used to be nearly inseparable until tragedy, time, and distance made them all but strangers.
The siblings’ rediscovery of their love for each other is the core of The Skeleton Twins, and both leads are superbly nuanced and sympathetic even when they act like a-holes, which occurs frequently in the film. Hader makes his portrayal of Milo appear effortless, fully inhabiting this depressed gay man without it ever being about the fact that he’s gay. Wiig’s Maggie is kissing cousins with the string of sad women that she seems intent on playing lately in films like Girl Most Likely and Hateship Loveship — her particular brand of “woman who refuses to accept responsibility” goes back to Bridesmaids, actually — but she occasionally shakes off her funk and delivers some humor in her scenes with fellow Saturday Night Live survivor Hader.
It is the paces that Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman put the Deans through that feel much more forced than their natural chemistry. The extramarital affair, the high school scandal, the dysfunctional parental relationships (personified by New Age mom Joanna Gleason) — they all feel like they’ve been pulled right out of the indie comedy/drama playbook, along with the required karaoke/musical number that we’re all supposed to laugh along with (I just kind of groaned). Drama ensues around every corner, and the inevitable explosion between Milo and Maggie feels rote and inevitable, as does its aftermath.
But the movie never really cuts deep enough as drama nor escalates as black comedy. Luckily the Wiig-Hader combination at least helps you get through the story’s many contrivances, especially since the rest of the cast is not given all that much to do. Luke Wilson is sweet and adds some dimension to the inch-deep Lance, but Burrell has less success with his stock tortured closet case. Make no mistake though: this is all about Milo and Maggie. It really seems at points throughout the film that Johnson and Heyman know they’ve created these two terrific characters but are unsure what to do with them.
The movie’s tone wavers throughout, and it’s not an especially pleasant-looking or well-edited piece of work either: Johnson’s direction and compositions are largely flat and murky, and the film feels longer than its relatively brief 92 minutes. Yet, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy The Skeleton Twins, mainly because Wiig and especially Hader deliver such strong performances. Their delight in playing off each other seeps into the characters themselves and gives them a feeling of real flesh and blood. It’s nice to watch this kind of complex brother-sister dynamic even when the world and story constructed around them feels like it’s built on the bones of a much lesser movie.
The Skeleton Twins is out in theaters now.