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If you’re going to juggle despair and humor in a story about two emotionally unstable, occasionally suicidal adult siblings who keep tripping up on the disappointments of their lives, it’s tricky to find a tone that’s neither too whiny nor too glib. But Craig Johnson’s delightful The Skeleton Twins gets it right. Warm, funny, heartfelt and even uplifting, the film is led by revelatory performances from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, both of them exploring rewarding new dramatic range without neglecting their mad comedic skills. This one seems a strong contender to join the club of Sundance discoveries that went on to hurdle the indie niche.
The closest recent equivalent to what Hader and Wiig achieve here — both in solo moments and through the brilliant chemistry of their many scenes together — is Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ affecting performance in Enough Said. All three Saturday Night Live alums initially honed their instincts for comic timing and offbeat line readings in sketch comedy. Watching as they stretch unaccustomed muscles on the more serious side of the spectrum provides a special kind of pleasure.
Johnson, who previously made 2009’s True Adolescents, co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Heyman. While its repeat pattern of emotional crises followed by periods of calm could perhaps be called schematic, the film’s conventional aspects are entirely overshadowed by the richness of its central characters and their funny-sad complications.
It opens with lonely failed actor Milo (Hader) slashing his wrists in the bathtub before cutting to Maggie (Wiig) as she contemplates a large handful of pills. Interrupted by a call informing her that the twin brother, from whom she has been estranged for ten years, has been hospitalized following a suicide attempt, she flies out to Los Angeles for an uncomfortable reunion. “Look at me, another tragic gay cliché,” deadpans Milo, trying to brush it off as a drunken melodramatic impulse.
Maggie coaxes Milo to come and stay with her a while in their upstate New York hometown, where her breezily uncomplicated husband, Lance (Luke Wilson), provides a warm welcome. “I can’t wait to be the creepy gay uncle,” responds Milo when his brother-in-law announces that they’re trying to have a baby. The shorthand communication and shared humor that’s specific to brothers and sisters (especially gay brothers) is drawn in deft strokes.
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While the coolness between the siblings lingers, the connection is nonetheless palpable, underscored by quick cuts of them playing dress-up as kids, when their father dubbed them “the gruesome twosome.” Their dad’s suicide is in large part the cause of problems that have accompanied both Milo and Maggie into adulthood. But their self-absorbed mother (Joanna Gleason) likely didn’t help, as evidenced by the new-age spiritual practitioner’s superficial displays of concern during a hilariously ghastly flying visit. “I’m sending you the light,” she coos without irony while departing.
Unbeknownst to Maggie, Milo begins stalking his first love, Rich (Ty Burrell), hoping to rekindle a relationship whose imbalance is revealed only gradually. Meanwhile, his sister succumbs to the attentions of her hunky scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook). She confesses the self-sabotaging impulses of her extramarital forays to Milo, admitting the secret behind her failure to conceive a child with Lance. “He’s good,” says Milo of her husband. “Maybe good isn’t your thing.”
As the twins renew their closeness, they also regain intuitive insight into one another’s pain and sense of failure. That makes it harder for them to avoid openness, even if friction continues to surface as we learn the cause of their estrangement. Johnson and Heyman’s script is smart enough not to trim away all the untidy edges of their damaged lives, but it points them in the right direction in a genuinely satisfying final act.
The film is punctuated throughout by exhilarating interludes that show Hader and Wiig at their best: loosening up over nitrous oxide in the office where Maggie works as a dental hygienist; revisiting their childhood Halloween antics, with Milo in splendidly unflattering drag; and best of all, lip-synching to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” as he attempts to pull her out of a funk.
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But it’s the effortless balance of light and dark, of flippancy and searing vulnerability that distinguishes both these wonderful performances. There’s not the slightest trace of a condescending mannerism in Hader’s characterization of an unhappy gay man whose only refuge is his sardonic wit. (Watching the actor’s whole face sink as he repeats the words “Dyke night?” at a man-free local gay bar is priceless.) Milo uses humor as a natural defense mechanism, even if it doesn’t always mask the grimace of discomfort, while the more outwardly thorny Maggie subjects herself and everyone around her to wild mood swings. “Landmines, dude,” explains Lance, about the challenges of navigating his wife’s volatility.
Like the under-appreciated HBO series Enlightened, this film shows how good Wilson can be in the right role. He makes Lance so confident in his own skin, his masculinity, his marriage and his place in the world that he seems the perfect all-comprehending partner for a woman like Maggie, who comes with a lot of baggage. Which makes his hurt upon discovering her deceit all the more moving. Holbrook (doing a solid Australian accent) and the marvelous Gleason both nail amusing caricatures in limited screen time, while Burrell softens his self-deluding character with silent, humanizing acknowledgments of Rich’s weakness.
Shot with the crisp simplicity that such a character-driven seriocomedy requires, the film is briskly paced, with a lovely scene-to-scene flow enhanced by Nathan Larson’s unintrusive score. The central characters may be largely defined by their melancholia and their messed-up histories, but the film is a crowd-pleasing balm.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Adriane Lenox
Production companies: Duplass Brothers, Venture Forth
Director: Craig Johnson
Screenwriters: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman
Producers: Stephanie Langhoff, Jennifer Lee, Jacob Pechenik
Executive producers: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Jared Ian Goldman
Director of photography: Reed Morano
Production designer: Ola Maslik
Music: Nathan Larson
Costume designer: Mikaela Wohl
Editor: Jennifer Lee
No rating, 92 minutes.
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