The Skeleton Twins
(M) Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment
They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Equally true, that you should never judge a film by its cast. With Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig headlining, and Luke Wilson and Modern Family’s Ty Burrell in key supporting roles, one would assume The Skeleton Twins to be a flat-out laugh riot. But director Craig Johnson’s film has deeper, darker issues to explore.
The film opens with the concurrent unsuccessful suicide attempts of a twin brother and sister, Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig). Milo is a gay, unemployed actor. Maggie is a married, discontented dental hygienist. His attempt fails; hers is interrupted by the news of his. Despite being thick as thieves as kids, they haven’t spoken to each other in ten years. Rushing across the country to be by Milo’s side, Maggie insists he move in with her and husband Lance until he has recovered. Living under the same roof, these two troubled siblings reconnect, rediscovering the bond they share, confronting old wounds and helping each other address their issues.
Obviously, The Skeleton Twins is not the light giggle-fest you may have expected. “Dramedy” is the best way to describe it. Explored in a serious way are some serious issues – depression, self-worth, the effects of suicide. But given the cast, this “dramedy” can’t help but allow some humour to sneak in.
Covering some familiar thematic ground, Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman’s screenplay feels a bit paint-by-numbers indie flick. Over the past two decades of American independent film, we have seen a steady stream of dysfunctional, estranged families and adults trying to deal with the scars inflicted by their parents. While The Skeleton Twins is an earnest film, it doesn’t offer us anything drastically different. Johnson and Heyman succeed in creating strong, complex and largely believable characters, but the narrative itself occasionally opts for the easy and conventional route.
The strength of the movie comes from the revelatory central performances from Hader and Wiig. Evidently, both are heavily invested in this project. They show impressive dramatic range, despite what is suggested by their backgrounds in improvisational comedy. We’ve seen glimpses of what Wiig is capable of in dramatic moments in Bridesmaids and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but Hader’s film career has, to this point, comprised supporting roles in broad comedies. With one of Hader’s most beloved SNL characters being the ultra-camp Stefon, it is impressive to see Hader’s Milo doesn’t fall back on lazy gay stereotyping. Instead, he is a well-crafted and complex character.
Having worked together for so many years on SNL, there is a chemistry between Hader and Wiig which helps to make them very believable as siblings. Milo and Maggie have a shared sense of humour and shorthand communication which aligns well with Hader and Wiig. While their performances in the more dramatic moments are what surprises, their comedic abilities are still pivotal. They break through the film’s bleakness, while also serving to reinforce it. This helps to emphasise how Milo and Maggie are two fun individuals, squashed by life.
The Skeleton Twins is moving, at times quite confronting and, at others, very funny. It reminds us of the special bond that siblings share.