In Craig Johnson’s “The Skeleton Twins,” “Saturday Night Live” alumni Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig get their shot at playing dramatic roles, as Milo and Maggie, two basket-case twins that haven’t seen each other in 10 years. A family tragedy violently took away their innocence when they were in their early teens, so they started down their different, self-destructive paths.
“The Skeleton Twins” is a gloomy movie — there are three instances of attempted suicide. Thankfully, the lead performances and those of a few supporting players make the picture worthwhile, and Johnson knows to inject humor into the mix to ease some of the melancholy.
The movie begins with both siblings attempting suicide, but Milo, who is gay, is the more screwed up of the two. So before Maggie can drown herself in pills and liquor, she gets a call from the hospital about her brother, who’s since moved to L.A. and become a struggling actor.
For a change of pace, Maggie brings Milo back with her to their hometown in upstate New York to live with her and her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). The first few interactions between them are awkward, as Maggie tries to reconnect with Milo and he hides behind a defensive wall of sarcasm, both trying to sidestep the issue.
Before long, that awkwardness dissolves, and they start going at each other’s throats. Maggie accuses Milo of being a child and berates him about getting his act straight; meanwhile, she’s cheated on Lance with four other men.
Hader plays the role of Milo with flamboyance and sass, but he never goes too over-the-top with it. Milo is not a gay stereotype, and Hader does a fantastic job of bringing the viewer into Milo’s psyche, letting us experience right along with him the great amount of pain he’s suffering. Not only that, Hader doesn’t let Milo’s homosexuality completely define who he is.
As good as Hader is though, Wiig is even better, and she has the more difficult role to play. Whereas Milo is more outwardly reckless and self-destructive, Maggie is more inwardly so. By getting married and working as a dental hygienist, Maggie is trying to live a normal, stable life and tries to convince herself that she’s happy when she isn’t. For a majority of the movie, she puts on a happy face, masking her unhappiness and shame.
Wilson is also very good as Maggie’s benevolent, supportive husband. Lance makes more of an effort to bond with Milo initially than Maggie does and puts up with Milo’s snippiness.
However, it’s when Johnson allows Hader and Wiig to utilize their playful, comedic sensibilities does “The Skeleton Twins” really excel. Maggie and Milo do an awful lot of moping around, and to see them ease up and have fun together shows progress. In one of the best scenes — when they get high on laughing gas at Maggie’s work — they display a strong sense of intimacy and affection toward each other.
Sometimes the mood swings — from serious and depressing, to comic and goofy — can feel too abrupt and the ending wraps things up a little too neatly, but overall, “The Skeleton Twins” is a strong film, anchored by two very strong performances.