Sometimes a movie rubs you the wrong way, right away, and then just keeps on rubbing. That was the case for me with The Skeleton Twins, in which Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play broken adult siblings whose brokenness is never taken very seriously.
It certainly makes for handy drama to have such a crumpled pair. Within the first five minutes of the film (I wouldn’t consider this a spoiler, but you may want to skip this sentence to be safe), we get a parallel sequence of both main characters considering – and in one instance attempting – suicide. The misery only mounts from there.
Yet this isn’t a bleak exploration of human frailty, a kitchen-sink look at tortured souls. The Skeleton Twins doesn’t have that sort of conviction. Instead, this is one of those dreaded independent dramedies that never quite melds its two sensibilities, and as such isn’t true to either of them.
Wiig and Hader play Maggie and Milo, respectively. Though inseparable as kids, they’ve grown apart and haven’t spoken in 10 years. Milo is a struggling actor in Los Angeles coming off a failed gay relationship. Maggie remained in their small New York town, where she’s itchily married to a dim outdoorsman (Luke Wilson). When Milo’s aforementioned act of desperation necessarily reunites them, he reluctantly moves in with Maggie; the rest of the film sends them through a series of escalating catastrophes.
Wiig dims her charismatic bulb so much she nearly goes blank.
Listing the specifics of these events would spoil too much. Instead, I’ll only say that my initial skepticism about a movie that came out of the gate with the drama amped that high was confirmed as more and more misfortune came Milo and Maggie’s way. When a film piles on this many problems for its characters, it’s often because it doesn’t really believe in any of them.
And so The Skeleton Twins, directed by Craig Johnson from a script he wrote with Mark Heyman, doesn’t put much effort into exploring the issues raised by its calamities. Instead, the movie uses them for convenient tragic effect, punctuated with wacky scenes of Maggie and Milo rekindling the playful intimacy of their childhood. Wiig and Hader, who were cast mates at Saturday Night Live for nine years, have a certain camaraderie in these moments, to be sure, but the sequences – including one in which they indulge in nitrous oxide at the dentist’s office where she works – also have the distinct air of those movie scenes where the cast is clearly having more fun than the average audience member.
Between the two of them, Hader shows the most dramatic promise, which was something of a surprise. (I’d seen Wiig dip her toes in these waters, but not him.) His Milo is committed to his despondency, yet still full of enough life to wield a biting wit – in fact, the characteristics may be related. Here and there, Hader is able to channel the mixture of humor and pathos that the movie itself never quite nails.
What’s interesting about Wiig is that she has a naturally sad face, especially for a comedian – it’s long and drawn, with knowing eyes. When Wiig is being funny, the interplay between her dour demeanor and comic behavior makes for a fizzy, jittery dynamic. Here, though, she mostly relies on that face and probably emphasizes it more than necessary. She dims her charismatic bulb so much she nearly goes blank.
To be fair to both actors, Maggie and Milo have been envisioned less as living, breathing humans than as convenient epicenters for melodramatic plot points. In other words, they’re less than the sum of their family dysfunction. Some people’s lives are this messy and complicated, to be sure. But it would take a different movie to do them justice.