The Skeleton Twins
2014, R, 93 min. Directed by Craig Johnson. Starring Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 26, 2014
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig don’t look much like they share the same DNA. He’s got a spindly frame and a wicked Jack o’ Lantern grin, while she’s nearly a foot shorter and more softly featured. She has the mien of a lost kitten; he looks like he’s about to pounce. Still, they wear a similarly slouchy, deadpan affect, and buying them as siblings isn’t difficult. Their years working together on Saturday Night Live no doubt helped; they understand each other’s rhythms and know when to stress the weak beat. There’s not a lot that screams “original” in The Skeleton Twins, the second feature from Craig Johnson (True Adolescents), but it’s worth a watch to see these two reliably comic actors do some heavy dramatic lifting and tenderly spot for each other.
The Skeleton Twins introduces the pair as long-estranged siblings who reunite when Milo (Hader) attempts suicide. His reasons aren’t precisely articulated – there’s the suggestion that a love affair has recently broken up (the camera glances by a framed photo of Milo with what is presumably an ex-boyfriend), and his acting career in Los Angeles has gone nowhere. So sister Maggie (Wiig) packs up Milo and takes him back to their small hometown in New York where she lives with her nice-guy hubby Lance (Wilson). Everyone assumes Milo is the basket case; he did just try to permanently exit the stage. But Maggie’s got her secrets, too – namely, that she’s a much bigger weirdo than she’s letting on with her husband. Even as they grow closer, Milo and Maggie, separately, are hanging on by very thin threads.
For a movie with mental health on its mind, The Skeleton Twins feels oddly low-stakes; suicide, a recurring concern, never feels like more than a plot device, something overworkshopped at a Sundance Lab. (In fact, Johnson and his co-writer Mark Heyman never got into the program, but they did win a screenwriting award when The Skeleton Twins premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. That must have felt good.) There are no glaring missteps, but little breath of life, either. The film is beautifully shot (by Reed Morano) – the picturesque Hudson Valley does its part by dropping center-spread fall colors – and sensitively performed. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, sometimes sad – and always expected.