The Skeleton Twins defies easy definition. Its stars, Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader, the versatile and frequently hilarious Saturday Night Live alums, suggest a comedy. The story, about estranged twins with suicidal tendencies and family dysfunction, does not.
That dilemma, whether to laugh or cry, occurs frequently throughout director Craig Johnson’s second feature, beginning almost immediately. Milo (Hader), a gay man living alone in Los Angeles, leaves a note on his table (“To whom it may concern: See ya”) and slashes his wrists. At the same time, Maggie (Wiig), an unhappy wife in upstate New York, is about to throw back a handful of pills before receiving a call, informing her of Milo’s hospitalization and unsuccessful attempt on his life. They are two haunting acts given a small dose of humor in their ironic, simultaneous desire for departure.
From then it’s clear that these twins have a similar frequency even though they haven’t seen each other in a decade. Following the news, Maggie takes Milo back to her home on the east coast to keep an eye on him and share in some misery that has recently pervaded both of their lives. Milo has failed to become the actor he once hoped to become and Maggie is unhappily married to Lance (Luke Wilson), a loving, spunky outdoorsman with excess energy to spend, a Labrador retriever, as Milo calls him.
Some of this is pathological, attributed to their father, who killed himself when they were teenagers, and to their mother (a wonderfully out-of-touch Joanna Gleason), a new-age practitioner that started a new family in Arizona and has been distant ever since. A short reunion for dinner exacerbates their separation. But their former trauma still guides their decision-making. Milo revisits with his compromising first love, Rich (Ty Burrell), his former high school English teacher that began a scandal and pushed Maggie away from him. Meanwhile, Maggie directs her marital frustration into an affair with her Australian SCUBA instructor. She even admits her infidelity is generic.
It’s a lot of secretive pain under one house, though Lance is mostly oblivious, bonding with Milo, who considers himself a “tragic gay cliché,” to clean up some local outdoor hiking trails. Johnson, who wrote the script with Mark Heyman, fluctuates rapidly between these moments of breezy dialogue and melancholic conversation, almost becoming too predictable with each character’s inevitable peaks and valleys. At times their lives appear to be resumes of disaster, each bad decision another bullet point of frustration and sadness neither wants to admit is real.
You need good actors to pull off a crescendo of problems like that. Wiig and Hader are up for the task. Their chemistry breeds from their live TV foundation, but it also transcends their comic sensibility. It starts when they turn a dentist’s office where Maggie works into a playground. They fill up with nitrous oxide and make fart jokes like little kids, or actors killing time between takes. Johnson is smart enough to let his camera roll for this, banking on the fluid dynamic that seems to have no distinction between script and improvisation.
But then the sugar high crashes. They lay down on the floor together and just as quickly begin discussing their painful realities. It works because we’re allowed to see the transition. The switch gives the film an overarching somber tone, accompanied by the Hudson Valley’s drab fall palette. Johnson knows you will laugh but he wants to see where the laughs go after a few minutes, when the nitrous settles and the stunted kids come back to their grossly adult lives. When the fart jokes lose their smell.
All you need to do is look. Wiig’s face is weathered and scowled. Hader wears dreariness. But then you get moments of ecstasy, thriving on spontaneity. It happens midway through the film. Hader puts on Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and begins lip-syncing. The song is at once absurd and cathartic. Wiig is in a bad mood and eyes her brother to shut it off, but the throwback pop becomes too infectious. On a dime she turns her evil stare into a signature mime and starts mouthing, “Let ‘em say we’re crazy/ What do they know.” For the first time Wiig twitches her nose and Hader flashes his familiar pearls. They cut through their cloud of grief and you can’t help but smile with them.