The Skeleton Twins feels so clichéd “indie” that it almost folds over into meta. That’s not entirely a bad thing—at least we’ve reached the point where delicately essayed indie-feelin’ films about human people not wearing superhero costumes or trying to blow each other up are created and appreciated often enough to be criticized for familiar sameness.
As directed by Craig Johnson from a script he co-wrote with Mark Heyman, the hyped hook for the quirky dram-com The Skeleton Twins (there’s much more dram than com) is that it reunites former SNL cast mates Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as formerly estranged twins Maggie and Milo—except now the comic actors are super-mopey instead of super-funny!
Sorry, that came off much more dismissive than I intended. Fact is, Wiig and Hader are both terrific in The Skeleton Twins, as are Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell as their supporting, “complicated” love interests. The film itself chronicles the melan-comic emotional mishaps that befall Maggie and Milo as they’re forced back together in adulthood by their mutual suicidal tendencies, and it’s all plenty enjoyable in a nice rainy-afternoon-with-Morrissey way.
Wiig has proven her dramedy chops before in films like All Good Things, Friends With Kids, and even the more emotionally honest bits of Bridesmaids. Hell, her 2012 SNL farewell, serenaded with “Ruby Tuesday” by Mick Jagger, is one of the lovelier bittersweet moments in the show’s recent history. If anything, Skeleton Twins reminds you that Wiig’s eyes’ default setting is a sad and weary skepticism—like many Wiig characters both comic and dramatic, Maggie’s long since seen through the “happy princess” lies of real life, but chooses to cling to them out of an emotional survival instinct.
So this time it’s Hader who’s getting the big “who knew he could really act?!” huzzahs. I suppose we’re still at the point—at least in the land of this sort of semi-lazy Indie film—where the gayness of gay characters is considered a “character trait.” Hader will no doubt score Oscar-buzz points for playing the sassy, self-deprecating, self-loathing complexities of Milo’s flamboyant, sometimes flailing homosexuality. (If a little Stefon outrageousness occasionally slips through, Hader deftly weaves the camp into the character.)
But under all the irony, the achievement of his performance is in playing a complicated human being opposite Wiig’s equally complicated straight human being. Because American pop culture primarily feels, accurately or not, that depression is best defined through romantic failings, The Skeleton Twins spends much of its narrative time and energy on Maggie and Milo’s broken and dysfunctional romantic relationships. Maggie serially self-shames by cheating on her loving, doting dolt of a husband (Wilson); and soon after Milo’s melodramatic, self-pitying cry-for-help suicide attempt, he revisits a former high-school English teacher (Burrell) who he was involved with as a teen.
But it’s in the brother-sister scenes between Maggie and Milo that the film finds its best moments and its strongest emotional beats, showing how, as youth, Maggie and Milo developed a symbiotic survival system in the wake of their father’s own suicide. Most of that survival system centers on making each other laugh, as evidenced in scenes of them collapsing in mutual giggles while snorting nitrous or of Milo coaxing Maggie into joining him in lip-synching to Starship’s super-cheese Mannequin theme “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now.”
That last bit is probably the film’s most memorable, not just for the joyous silliness it (cheaply) milks out of stubborn sadness, but because if as a culture we can agree on little else, we still share a not-so-ironic love of ridiculous ‘80s pop anthems. (The scene also gives Wiig a near-transcendently sweet moment as Maggie first resists then finally, gloriously gives into Milo’s relentlessly earnest stupidity.) But it also helps us see how the siblings helped each other built walls of snarky humor around their pain and how fragile and weak both of them are when those walls crumble.
The problem with The Skeleton Twins is that all that sweetness and sadness and those nicely essayed performances are served up in a formulaic script that never met a modern Indie-film cliché it didn’t embrace and render trite. With quirky emotional awkwardness as its driving aesthetic, the film paints its themes with a mighty broad brush. For example, given that their father killed himself jumping off a bridge, the film’s use of water and skeleton metaphors would elicit eye rolls from a seventh-grade Language Arts class. (Whenever someone’s really upset they break an empty aquarium, leaving goldfish to literally die out of water.)
As good as the film is at showing how Maggie and Milo survived by stitching their broken selves together with morbid, self-cutting humor, it has little genuine or insightful to say about the actual broken parts. Too often substituting cliché for emotional complexity, The Skeleton Twins leaves Wiig and Hader to spin their characters’ darker struggles from whole cloth. The actors succeed to an admirable degree, but ultimately the film seems to use suicidal depression as a plot device, an expression of frustration rather than honestly exploring the subject.
Like the skeletons of its title (and its persistent visual motif), the film feels like a collection of parts—even if several are meaty ones for its actors.