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Skeleton Twins, The

D: Craig Johnson / 93m

Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason

Following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Milo Dean (Hader) agrees to stay for a while with his twin sister, Maggie (Wiig) and her husband, Lance (Wilson). Milo and Maggie haven’t seen or spoken to each other in ten years, and at first, they are hesitant with each other. Milo is gay, and getting over the end of a relationship (hence the suicide attempt), while Maggie appears happy in her marriage but is always off taking courses – currently it’s scuba diving – and while Lance is keen to have children, Maggie is secretly taking the pill.

While out one day, Milo sees an “old flame”, Rich (Burrell), working in a bookstore. He approaches him but Rich is hostile. Meanwhile, Maggie is becoming increasingly attracted to her scuba diving instructor, Billy (Holbrook). Milo begins helping Lance with his work clearing paths in the woods, and after a visit from their mother (Gleason) that doesn’t go well, Milo and Maggie take the first proper steps in rebuilding their relationship. The next day, Milo returns to the bookstore and things go better with Rich; Maggie though, goes to a bar after class with Billy and they end up having sex in the bathroom.

The issue of pregnancy and Maggie’s abilities as a mother lead to a falling out between her and Milo. They patch things up, and in the process, tell each other some secrets: Milo reveals he has had sex with a woman, while Maggie reveals she’s on birth control. She further reveals it’s not because she doesn’t want children, but that she always sleeps with her instructors; it’s a compulsion she can’t help. That evening, Milo meets up with Rich and they spend the night together (even though Rich has a wife and son).

Halloween comes round and Milo and Maggie decide to dress up and go out like they did as kids. While they’re in a bar, Milo goes to the bathroom and leaves his phone behind. It rings and Maggie sees that it’s Rich calling. This leads to a row between them. Soon after, Lance and Milo have a Dudes Day, during which Lance voices his concerns that he might be shooting blanks because of how long it’s taking for Maggie to become pregnant. Milo, still smarting over Maggie’s reaction to his seeing Rich, plants the seed that she may be taking some “medication” that Lance doesn’t know about. But unbeknownst to both Lance and Milo, Maggie just might be pregnant after all.

Skeleton Twins, The - scene

Early on in The Skeleton Twins we see Maggie holding a handful of pills with the intention of taking them and ending her life. She’s interrupted by the call that tells her about Milo’s failed attempt. Suicide is a big issue in the movie, and while it sets the scene for the movie as a whole, and is referred to on several occasions, it appears more as a deus ex machina than as a raison d’être, spurring the movie on when Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman’s script needs it to. There’s plenty of incident in the movie, and there’s more than enough to keep an audience interested, but the recurring use of suicide as a plot device makes it seem – by the movie’s end – artificial, and it loses its effect. If it had been used just to set up, or introduce, the characters of Milo and Maggie then it might have had more potency. As it is, their reasons for trying to end their lives – while obvious – are never really explored in any real depth, and what becomes clear as the movie progresses is that the viewer will only be given access to Milo and Maggie’s surface feelings and nothing more profound.

Which makes The Skeleton Twins a frustrating, though nevertheless enjoyable viewing experience. As mentioned above, there’s a lot going on in the movie, and a lot of it is very engaging, and even though it’s predictable in the way that indie movies that deal with fractured relationships often are, it’s that familiar sheen that carries the movie forward and makes it work (for the most part). Milo and Maggie live average lives that border on quiet desperation; they both want to feel something more than they usually feel, and both are searching for a contentment they can’t quite grasp hold of. Milo feels the need to brag to Rich about an acting career he doesn’t have, because he’s envious of the life Rich is leading. Maggie feels the need to have affairs because being settled scares her. Both of them want stability but don’t know to achieve or maintain it. In the end, they learn to rely on each other a little bit more than they used to, but they’re still a long way from finding the peace that has so far eluded them.

There are other angles and avenues that aren’t fully explored – their mother’s role in their childhood (and the same for their father), the previous relationship between Milo and Rich, Maggie’s compulsion re: extra-marital sex – and these add to the sense that the script wasn’t fully developed before filming began. However, the script does have its compensations, not least some terrific dialogue, and an often delightful sense of the absurd. And there’s a great sequence where Milo cheers up Maggie by miming to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, so vividly expressed by the pair that it’s easily the movie’s highlight.

What saves the movie completely, though, are the performances from Hader and Wiig. Wiig is on fine form, displaying an understanding of the character that makes Maggie a lot more sympathetic than she might be otherwise (both she and Milo are quite self-centred and narcissistic in their own ways, and these aren’t always attractive qualities in either of them). Maggie has a vulnerability about her as well that Wiig portrays with skill, and she pulls off the difficult moments when Maggie is overwhelmed by her own feelings with both talent and proficiency. But the real performance of note is Hader’s, shrugging off his usual comic schtick to provide an impressive, noteworthy portrayal of a man hoping to reconnect with a time when he felt valued and needed (even if it wasn’t the best of situations). There’s a soulful aspect to his performance that makes Milo the more likeable of the two siblings, and even when he’s messing things up in his relationship with Maggie, you can see clearly that Milo is doing his best, even if it’s coming out wrong. It’s a well-balanced rendition that is more affecting that might be expected, and shows Hader to be a far more intuitive actor than previous roles have indicated.

Alongside Hader and Wiig, Wilson takes Lance’s almost puppy-dog looks and personality and makes him the quintessential good guy, but not quite so bland or vanilla that you can’t see Maggie’s attraction to him. It’s the awkward, not-quite-so-invested-in-by-the-script supporting role that can seem a bit colourless, but Wilson is quietly effective throughout. As Rich, Burrell has the more dramatic role, and gives a good portrayal of a man afraid of his past and the feelings it brings up, matching Hader for intensity in their scenes together.

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In the director’s chair, Johnson directs his and Heyman’s script with a delicate touch that, unfortunately, leaves much of the drama either quickly dispelled with or feeling lightweight and lacking in importance. He fares better with the visual look of the movie, the various locations and interiors given a sharp focus by Reed Morano’s complementary photography, and he uses close ups with a firm understanding of how potent they can be at the right time. Nathan Larson’s score is evocative and breezy, and full marks absolutely have to go to key makeup artist Liz Lash for coming up with Milo’s Halloween look – disturbing, for once, for all the right reasons.

Rating: 6/10 – with the material only scratching the surface of its characters lives and problems, The Skeleton Twins just misses out on being as poignant and as emotionally involving as it should have been; stellar lead performances aside, this is a movie that is still worth watching but with the proviso that it’s sadly less than the sum of its parts.