There’s a good bet that if you were to ask any writer whether they had ever written a story or a script that explored the act of suicide, they either have one tucked away in a drawer somewhere, or at the very least, they’ve thought about writing one. There’s a built-in drama that automatically draws attention. In the new drama The Skeleton Twins from director Craig Johnson, who also co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman, the story begins with not one but two suicide attempts.
“Maybe we were doomed from the beginning,” a voice-over tells us. Milo (Bill Hader) is gay and lives in Los Angeles. His estranged, married sister, Maggie (Kristen Wiig) lives in New York. Both are unhappy and both are contemplating suicide. It’s something their father did. Just at the moment when Maggie looks down at the handful of pills she is about to swallow, the phone rings. She pauses, then takes the call. It’s a message letting her know that her brother was in hospital after a failed attempt at slitting his wrists in the bathtub. Maggie sets the pills aside.
“I was drunk and melodramatic,” Milo tells his sister when she arrives, ready to take him to New York after a ten year absence. Milo’s not particularly happy about it, but with reluctance he travels back to his east coast hometown to recuperate and to move in with Maggie and her up-beat and hugely likable husband, Lance (Luke Wilson who has rarely been better).
Lance is a great guy, full of energy with a positive, take-charge attitude. When glass is accidentally broken in the home, Lance characteristically takes over. “Everybody freeze!” he declares. “I’ll get a brush pan.” He also wants children, little knowing that Maggie is secretly taking birth control pills, not to mention the several sexual encounters she’s had at the cooking class or with her Australian scuba instructor. “I can’t wait to be the creepy, gay uncle,” Milo humorously tells Lance in their first, get-to-know-each other conversation.
Why brother and sister have not been talking to each other for ten years is never fully explained; at least, not at first, but as the film progresses we catch glimpses of what must have added to the rift. First there’s a brief visit from new-age space cadet mom (Joanna Gleason) who cleanses Milo’s chakra and, after an uncomfortable family confrontation with Maggie, leaves the house declaring, “I’m sending you the light.”
Then there’s the previous romance between Milo and Rich (Ty Burrell successfully playing way against type from his TV Modern Family sit-com), a romance that Rich would prefer was kept under wraps considering he now has a wife and family.
The underlining humor helps make the depressive seriousness of the subject palatable. Both Wiig and Hader have here successfully shed most of their SNL ticks and quirks, though, by default and the occasional glance or head tilt, it would be impossible not to be occasionally reminded of some of their TV personas. Some of that humor is set early when Maggie notices that Milo is reading Marley and Me and remarks, “Yeah, that’s sad.” “Why?” asks Milo, “What happens?”
Outside of SNL, Wiig and Hader have worked together before in 2009’s Adventureland, but it’s here in The Skeleton Twins where they really click, neither appearing like comedians doing their best to leave their comedic side behind, but as fully-fledged, dramatic performers. It’s only the dud ending that lets the proceedings down leaving you with a that’s it? feeling.
There’s also the audience-pleasing moment when Milo starts a full-out mime performance in the living room, mouthing the lyrics to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now while egging his sister to participate. On the surface, it’s a priceless moment of fun, particularly when Maggie, with some reluctance, joins in, but when she mouths the lyrics “Let them say we’re crazy/What do they know?” there’s an unexpected level of poignancy that suddenly surfaces. It’s more than just a funny bit; it reinforces what we already know: Outsiders will never get them, but at least they get each other.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 93 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)