Review: The Skeleton Twins (2014)

Terrific performances elevate conventional, but poignant, indie drama

If you’ve seen the trailer for Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, you’ll probably think it’s a comedy. After all, its two lead actors, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, are known primarily for their comedic work on Saturday Night Live. But while The Skeleton Twins admittedly has its funny moments, it is a surprisingly touching drama about a brother-sister duo dealing with their fractured past.

The story begins rather morbidly when Milo (Hader), a depressed thirty-something, attempts suicide. On the other side of the country in Upstate New York, Maggie (Wiig), Milo’s estranged twin sister, also attempts to end her life by swallowing a handful of pills, only to be interrupted by a phone call from a hospital informing her about Milo’s suicide attempt. It’s one of the film’s many contrivances, sure, but it also hints at a kind of cosmic unity shared between the two, as though they are both willing each other back into their lives.

Maggie travels to California to suggest that he stays with her for a while, which Milo agrees to, and when he arrives back in his hometown the thrust of the story begins as they start to work through their problems. The siblings haven’t spoken to each other in ten years and still have an unresolved tension that is immediately palpable during their initial interactions. In addition to their relationship with each other, both Milo and Maggie have their own individual problems: Milo is dealing with an early mid-life crisis of sorts; his career as an actor hasn’t quite turned out the way he hoped it would. In fact, he no longer even has an agent and makes a living by waiting tables. Moreover, he hopes in vain to rekindle a relationship with his former teacher (played by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell), with whom he had an affair when he was a high school student.

Maggie, on the other hand, is unhappily married and exhibits a fear of commitment. Her husband (played by the understated Luke Wilson) hopes to have a child, but Maggie secretly uses contraceptives, leading Lance to believe he has fertility problems. Dissatisfied by her marriage she indulges in an extra-marital affair with her scuba-diving instructor Billy (Boyd Holbrook).

But the film isn’t all doom and gloom. There are a number of moments that lighten the mood, such as the film’s hilarious standout scene in which Milo and Maggie lip-synch along to everyone’s go-to Karaoke number, Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. What works so well about the film’s comedic touches is that, despite being funny in their own right, they also serve the characterisation of the two leads as it becomes clear that both Milo and Maggie employ humour as a veneer to conceal their inner pain.

Perhaps the film’s most glaring setback, aside from its uninspired visuals, is the film’s screenplay which, despite having a number of great one-liners, remains relatively conventional for the most part, relying on a number of clichés that abound in the indie drama genre. The most cloying example of this would be the frequent use of overly expositional dialogue spouted off by the two leads as they talk to each other about their problems.

What elevates the material is the terrific acting by Wiig, and especially Hader, who both bring nuance to their roles and manage to make their performances feel lived-in. Following their departure from SNL, it’s great to see them branch out and try more dramatic work whilst still using their comedic skills to imbue their characters with pathos. On the strength of their performances alone, The Skeleton Twins is well worth watching.

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