After both coincidentally cheating death, estranged twins Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) decide to reunite and fix their relationship. Milo, a failed actor based in LA, travels to the New York town where they grew up to spend time with Maggie, who herself is struggling with her marriage with too-nice husband Lance (Luke Wilson).
Tiny toy skeletons dangle and float in the blue water of a swimming pool, falling to the bottom where they lie, splayed forlornly. This is a film where suicide is a constant theme and a recurrent temptation, yet the saving grace, and the reason it’s already an indie crowd-pleaser, is the exuberant gallows humour that spurts out in the darkest moments. This, and performances of two comically gifted actors – Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader – who fizz and bounce off each with convincing sibling chemistry, managing to be both hilarious and touchingly vulnerable. (It must be said that Hader’s depiction of camp gayness may strike some as overplayed.)
Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) are thirty-something twins who haven’t spoken to each other in 10 years. Milo lives in LA, where his dreams of becoming an actor have devolved into the waiting tables and talking to his goldfish. After a breakup with his boyfriend, he writes a suicide note (“See ya later” – signed with a smiley face), turns up the music to full-blast and slits his wrists in the bath. On the other side of the country in upstate New York, Maggie is a disappointed dental hygienist and a compulsively unfaithful wife who’s sleeping with her young scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook). She’s about to pop a handful of lethal-looking pills. It’s only the phone-call from the hospital looking for Milo’s next of kin that saves her from her own plans for extinction. Turns out Milo’s okay but he needs supervision, so she takes him back home, where she lives with her infuriatingly upbeat and outdoorsy husband (Luke Wilson, who is nevertheless likable and sympathetic in the role). The siblings quickly reconnect by fighting and making up in an escalating pattern. They’re comrades in trauma (as most siblings are, in one way or another); both still suffering from the suicide of their father when they were 12 years old, and the neglect of their narcissistic mother (Joanna Gleason, who appears in one pivotal and painfully compelling scene).
There’s nothing particularly original in the plotting of this dark comedy: estranged family members face their demons, learn to love each other again and make each other laugh – and cry – in the process, while some nostalgic music (‘80s classics in this case, like Blondie’s ‘Denis’ and OMD’s ‘Secret’) paves the way to memory-fuelled bonding. The pleasure is all in the delivery and in watching Hader and Wiig, long-time sketch-comedy colleagues on Saturday Night Live, exploit their familiarity and well-honed ability to crack each other up. The funniest scenes are worth the price of admission: a poignant and beautifully timed karaoke version of cheesy Starship hit ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’; and a scene in which Maggie and Milo break into the dentist’s office, gulping down laughing gas and reverting to fart gags, in the way only those who knew each other intimately as children could do.
Directed by Craig Johnson (True Adolescents) who co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman (Black Swan), The Skeleton Twins is nicely but unobtrusively shot by DOP Reed Morano, especially in some beautiful underwater scenes. Morano claims the visual composition and look was loosely inspired by Punch-Drunk Love – another bittersweet comedy that was unafraid to linger on the blackest of human emotions. Perhaps the problems are solved a little too easily here – and there’s a final climactic scene which feels unbelievably contrived – but for laughs with heart, The Skeleton Twins is highly recommended.