By Linc Leifeste | September 25, 2014
Director: Craig Johnson
Writers: Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook
The Skeleton Twins opens bleakly enough, with one half of the long-estranged Dean twins, Milo (Bill Hader), attempting suicide by slicing his wrist in his L.A. apartment, while all the way across the country in New Hampshire Maggie (Kristen Wiig) simultaneously contemplates popping a handful of pills in her mouth, interrupted mid-attempt by the phone call from her brother’s hospital. So yes, what we have here is another of those quirky indie films featuring SNL-alum who are generally thought of as comedic actors,attempting to highlight their dramatic abilities by taking a serious turn across the screen. And, not surprisingly, Hader and Wiig prove up to the dramatic task, but sadly it’s in service of a film that ultimately feels a bit slight.
Of the two siblings, Maggie appears to be the one that has her shit together, at least on the surface. She and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) both have stable jobs and are trying to get pregnant. Depressive Milo, on the other hand, has been lingering in L.A. waiting tables, despite his dreams of becoming an actor having long since died. But the truth is that both of these adult children, whose father himself committed suicide in their childhood, are depressive and dysfunctional. One just hides it better than the other.
After many years apart, Milo’s suicide attempt reunites the siblings, with Maggie traveling to L.A. and inviting her brother to come back to live with her and Lance in their old hometown. Milo begrudgingly accepts but unfortunately also takes the opportunity to reunite with his old high-school English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell), who had carried on an illicit sexual relationship with the juvenile Milo. When Maggie finds out about the clandestine reunion, it threatens to put an end to her already turbulent relationship with her brother. But when Milo discovers that Maggie has some dark secrets of her own, including having an affair with her scuba teacher (Body Holbrook), the dynamics of their relationship become ever more complex and volatile.
Director Craig Johnson has made a film that as a whole is draped in a dreary depression, with both Milo and Maggie drowning in dysfunction and despair. Their mom (Joanna Gleason) makes an appearance just to let the viewer know that they come by their maladjustment honestly. Standing out amongst all the dysfunction, the most interesting character to me, ultimately, is Lance, who is presented as something of a simpleton, lacking in any deep thoughts or introspective qualities. This is a chump who likes to eat frozen waffles and Hot Pockets and watch a lot of TV, sure signs in the quirky, clever world of indie-film that a person is devoid of admirable qualities, and a character who exists more as the “straight man” to Milo and Maggie’s world-weary, reflective, complex personas than as a character to be examined on his own. But interestingly enough, it turns out that Lance, while maybe not naturally the most progressive or introspective of individuals, is the sweetest, kindest, most stand-up character in the film. And, let me add, just about the only times I found myself laughing were when Luke Wilson was onscreen.
Speaking of humor, Johnson wisely opts to reduce the risk of leaving the viewer feeling too wearied by overexposure to the Dean twins’ dysfunction by breaking it up with lengthy comedic interludes. So we get Milo and Maggie doing an extended improvised comedic riff while on nitrous oxide and Milo and Maggie lip-synching to Starship’s ‘80’s hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” And while these moments have the look and feel of classic SNL skits, in the context of the film, they fall remarkably flat. And oddly enough for a film starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, it’s the big unsuccessful comedic attempts lost within the dark, dramatic whole which ultimately stand out as the film’s biggest single flaw.