We are approaching the time of the year when the last of the most recent Sundance Film Festival’s films are seeing release. One of the more intriguing features that played at the festival was The Skeleton Twins, a comedic drama starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as a pair of estranged twins who are finally brought back together when they need each other most. Ugh. That description I just wrote is really saccharine – luckily co-writer/director Craig Johnson’s film transcends that sappy logline.
One afternoon, as Maggie (Wiig) sits in her bathroom, working up the nerve to swallow the handful of pills that might end her existential suffering, she gets a phone call informing her that her brother, Milo (Hader), has just been admitted to the hospital after his own failed suicide attempt. The twins are reunited after ten years of radio silence, and the bond that existed between them for so long won’t allow them to separate again. Milo returns to New York with Maggie, planning to stay with her and her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson), only temporarily. As the two siblings finally begin to open up to each other again, the viewer starts to see how each individual’s life got to such a dire place.
Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman create a couple of really interesting characters in their screenplay. Both Maggie and Milo are kind of not good people. They are both incredibly self-centered, hurtful, and judgmental, but when they are together they find the acceptance they have been longing for. They have both been hiding a side of themselves for the last ten years, and the most exciting part of the movie is watching them relearn how to finally be their true selves with one another. You can see it early on in the film when Milo, Maggie and Lance are having their first meal together. Milo is bemused by the way Maggie portrays herself with her husband, and Lance is fascinated by a side of Maggie that he has never really seen before.
The performances are what sell these moments, however. The script is at times subtle and at times overt, but when it allows the actors to take off, The Skeleton Twins really soars. Wiig and Hader are both playing against type here. Though the movie is very funny (though not as funny as my audience seemed to think it was), both SNL alumni have deep moments of introspection. And they sell them convincingly thanks to hard commitment to the characters.
Hader has things a little easier, as Milo functions as more of a facade for the actor. Milo is gay, and while Hader never really lapses into Stefon-esque stereotyping, there is still an added layer of performance. Wiig doesn’t have such a veil to hide behind, and her performance is a little more raw and affecting because of it. Maggie is also the less sympathetic character, making a challenging role even more difficult. Milo has had a rough go of it, and his suicidal response is one of exasperation and exhaustion, whereas Maggie reacts by lashing out in different ways, often to the detriment of Lance or Milo. But Wiig sells it. Late in the film Maggie says an especially biting remark to her brother, and we immediately see the regret on Wiig’s face, quickly giving way to Maggie’s stubborn inability to apologize. It is a masterfully acted moment.
Speaking of masterful, let’s talk about Luke Wilson. Did we all forget about him, or was it just me? I feel like he hasn’t been in a good movie in ten years, but here he is, picking it back up as if he shot Old School yesterday. His portrayal of Lance as a dopey man’s man with only the best of intentions is one of The Skeleton Twins‘s greatest assets. Lance is the only essentially good character in the movie, but that also runs the risk of him being a bit of a speed bump. Not with Wilson at the helm, however.
The Skeleton Twins is a movie about finding truth in the rubble of all the lies our parent (intentionally and unintentionally) tell us. Once you find that truth, however, it is even more important that you have someone to share it with. For both Maggie and Milo there is only really one person who can fill that role. The movie hits a couple revelatory emotional beats a little too hard, and there is an unfortunate voiceover/flashback combo early on, but Johnson’s film overcomes those setbacks thanks to the truths discovered by his actors.