Previously on Movie Curiosities, I reviewed a movie called This Is Where I Leave You. It was a dramatic comedy about a squabbling family, nowhere near worthy of its incredible cast. Only a week later, we now have The Skeleton Twins, another dramatic comedy about a squabbling family. And it also has a stellar (albeit far less crowded) cast. I confess that I first thought of calling Leave You a poor man’s Skeleton Twins, though I ultimately decided not to make that judgment until I had actually seen both movies.
I’m glad to have made that call. Skeleton Twins is so much better that no comparison is warranted.
The eponymous twins (at least I assume they’re twins, the movie never makes that clear) are Milo and Maggie Dean, respectively played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. Though we see that the two of them were very close during childhood, they had a falling out ten years ago and haven’t spoken since. Whatever the reason for their estrangement (don’t worry, it comes back up during the third act), Maggie still rushes to see Milo at the hospital when word comes in that he’s attempted suicide. Keep in mind, this means that Maggie had to travel from her home in upstate New York to see Milo in L.A. It’s also worth mentioning that Maggie was just about to commit suicide herself when the call from Milo’s hospital came in.
Yes, this movie opens with two — count ’em, two — suicide attempts. And there are more as the narrative progresses. Yet somehow, it still manages to be the feel-good movie of the year. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Why are these two trying to kill themselves? Well, their dad jumped off a bridge during their teenage years, so a genetic inclination toward depression is a possibility. But in Milo’s case, the more likely cause is that he’s a flaming homosexual who’s unlucky in love and his career as an actor has completely failed to launch. The guy wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s allergic to boredom, and he tends to make a big deal out of everything. That’s a bad combination if ever there was one.
Oh, and Rich is a factor as well. When Milo goes to live with his sister for a little while, he meets back up with Rich Little (Ty Burrell), an old high school flame. Except that during their love affair, Rich was a teacher and Milo was fifteen. Also, Rich has a girlfriend and a teenaged son. Yeah, even without the residual feelings they have for each other as adults, it’s still a really messy situation.
And what about Maggie? Well, she’s making a stable career for herself as a dental hygienist, and she’s married to a swell guy named Lance (Luke Wilson). You’d think that everything was just fine, and Maggie herself shows no sign that anything’s wrong. Yet she’s taking birth control pills behind her husband’s back, unable to come out and crush his dreams by saying that she’s not ready to be a mother. Also, she’s cheating on her sweetly oblivious husband with her scuba instructor (Australian bad boy Billy, played by Boyd Holbrook).
Oh, and I suppose I should also mention their mother. The siblings have a strained relationship with Judy Dean (Joanna Gleason), partly because she missed Maggie’s wedding in favor of some retreat. But mostly it’s because Judy is a total hippie who can’t shut up about whatever New Age crap she’s into at the moment. You know those people who are always happy in an annoying sort of way? Like you feel bad for hating them no matter how desperately you want them to shut up? That’s Judy. And Lance as well, come to think of it.
What it ultimately comes down to is that Milo and Maggie both feel somehow incomplete. There’s nothing objectively wrong with their lives, but there’s still a sense that something is missing, even if they can’t put their finger on precisely what. For the past ten years, while they were apart, they didn’t know how to deal with that gnawing pain other than to keep it bottled inside. And it destroyed them in every conceivable way. But then Milo and Maggie started talking again, only to find that they were always the only people who could ever open up to each other.
The two siblings have so many wonderful scenes together. There’s the scene when they get high on nitrous oxide and goof around while sharing deep secrets. There’s the scene when they turn “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” up to eleven and lip sync it together. There’s the scene when they go out drinking and dancing on Halloween night. Not only are these scenes incredibly funny, but they’re also the only moments when the characters are having any genuine fun. There’s no false pretense about being happy or living up to anyone else’s expectations, they can just let go and be themselves.
At first, there’s a very real sense that these siblings are the only ones who can tell each other everything without any fear of judgment. That changes in the third act, when tough love starts to set in and some very nasty words are traded. But even then, it’s made very clear that the siblings are only acting in each other’s best interests, and the painful truths only hurt so much because it’s coming from someone they deeply love.
This brings me back to the point about how this movie can get away with using suicide attempts (and depression, and marital infidelity, and pedophilia, and birth control…) as plot points and still work as such an uplifting story. For one thing, none of these problems are treated as one-and-done incidents, but continuous struggles that the two siblings need constant help with. This provides a sense that the movie is taking such issues seriously, which is of course imperative. For another thing, the story would never have worked unless it was treated as a huge breakthrough for the characters to confide in each other. Thusly, the story needed our characters to grapple with problems they couldn’t share with anyone else. Secrets that would eat away at the characters from the inside for being kept bottled up. Therefore, the characters had to deal with problems that were personal, heartbreaking, and perilously deep. It was the only way to present this story and its characters in a way that felt authentic.
The film was co-written and directed by Craig Johnson, making this his second feature after something called True Adolescents in 2009. Yet the movie seems to have more in common with the works of the Duplass Brothers, who served as exec producers here. The jokes have an improvised yet tightly edited feel to them that I’ve seen before in the Duplasses’ work (specifically, Your Sister’s Sister), and the characters are endearingly offbeat in a three-dimensional way that I’ve seen in all of their films that I’ve sat through. Also, Johnson reportedly became good friends with Mark Duplass after the latter starred in True Adolescents, so I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear that Johnson was heavily influenced by the Duplass’ style.
But of course, it’s really the cast that makes this movie. More specifically, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. After all the text I’ve already written about the two siblings and how badly they need each other, I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear how thoroughly fucked this movie would’ve been unless these two characters were cast perfectly. Fortunately, Hader and Wiig have both long since proven themselves as remarkably versatile talents, and their history on SNL together did the movie all kinds of favors. Whether these characters are bickering or goofing off, their chemistry is so completely effortless that it’s a joy to watch.
The standout of the supporting cast is Ty Burrell, who somehow brings a sympathetic kind of pathos to a man struggling with his past as a sex offender. I’m conflicted on Luke Wilson, however. It’s the same problem I had with him in Idiocracy: He plays an overwhelmingly bland character, but he plays “overwhelmingly bland” so well. The guy is milquetoast personified. The very picture of “adequate.” Nobody can play a nobody like Luke Wilson.
As for Joanna Gleeson and Boyd Holbrook, they’re barely worth mentioning. Gleeson only has one scene in the whole movie, though I’ll admit that she does make quite an impression with that one scene. As for Holbrook, his character is very little more than a penis. He’s someone for Maggie to bang on the side and feel bad about, nothing more and nothing less.
Still, for everything that this movie gets right, it doesn’t quite succeed in sticking the landing. I get what the filmmakers were going for, and they succeed in many ways, but there’s still a sense that the ending was rushed. I’m just saying, the film could have used another five or ten minutes to set up a climax that wasn’t resolved by a huge stinking plot hole.
That aside, The Skeleton Twins is a very good movie. It’s a moving and poignant story about two offbeat people learning how to cope with their quirks and secrets by opening up to each other, powered by two sterling performances from Hader and Wiig. The blend of comedy and drama is so effective that I have no problem recommending it.