Film Review: The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins / B-

With the notable exception of Bill Murray, SNL stars — from Dan Aykroyd to Eddie Murphy to Mike Myers to Will Ferrell — who make the jump from sketch comedy TV to the big screen are really just furthering their comedic brand (while fattening their bank accounts). The more recent crop of alums, which includes Will Forte (Nebraska), Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig, however, seems a tad more ambitious, demonstrating a talent for both humor and pathos.

In Craig Johnson's sophomore effort (co-written with Black Swan scribe Mark Heyman), Hader and Wiig play estranged fraternal twins, Milo and Maggie Dean. He's a gay, failed L.A. actor. She's a depressed dental assistant who's unfaithful to her nice-guy husband (Luke Wilson). Both have suicidal tendencies. In fact, the movie kicks off with Milo's feeble attempt to slit his wrists, which ends up interrupting Maggie's decision to swallow a handful of pills. What seems like a deliberately contrived setup, however, turns out to be less coincidental that you might think — the twins' dad took his life when they were tweens (Milo discovered the body) and both have been struggling with depression since.

After a hospital-room reunion, Milo agrees to return with his sister to their hometown, where she lives with her husband. There, the two bicker, banter, and bond as their dysfunctional past overlaps with the self-destructive present. To wit, Milo reconnects with the closeted high school English teacher (Ty Burrell) who had an affair with him when he was 15, and Maggie starts cheating again, this time with an Australian scuba instructor sporting a neck tattoo. Yup, it's another Sundance-style indie where neurotic family members are haunted by bygone tragedies and traumas. Frankly, similar material was better covered in Kenneth Lonergan's graceful and understated You Can Count on Me.

Johnson and Heyman's schematic script has some cleverly bitter dialogue, but their mordant, laughing-through-the-tears storyline lacks both a point of view and nuance, trading in tired water imagery (fish tanks, bathtubs, swimming pools), repetitive emotional confrontations, and a predictably tidy ending. The direction is more perfunctory than inspired, with Johnson relying on standard two-shot coverage and an overabundance of close-ups.

Still, Hader and Wiig’s prickly relationship is convincing, displaying an uncommonly complicated chemistry. Though the two look nothing alike, they manage to convey a shared sense of sibling history and humor, overcoming the film's many shortcomings with characters you actually care about. Wiig brings just the right amount of vulnerability, passive-aggressive ennui, and ferocious loyalty to instill empathy in the otherwise unlikable Maggie. Hader's Milo (who gets most of the punchlines) is habitually self-deprecating and sarcastic, using his droll wit defensively, sometimes viciously, to keep the world at arm's length. Both are sincere, yet never cloying in their angst, all too aware that their risky behaviors are as indulgent as they are sometimes ridiculous.

Though The Skeleton Twins’ hermetically sealed plotting doesn't give either actor enough opportunities to shine, there are two fabulous, seemingly improvised, scenes — a nitrous-driven night of bonding at Maggie’s dental office and a spontaneously campy lip-sync to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” In both, the actors’ impeccable sense of comic timing is on display, finding hilarious truth in small, personal moments. They’re so good that one wonders what might’ve been, had Johnson allowed his stars the freedom to riff off rather than recite his pain-by-numbers script. The Skeleton Twins is playing at the Main Art in Royal Oak. It's rated R and has a run time of 92 minutes.

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