There’s no shortage of dark indie drama/comedies starring comedians right now, huh? Obvious Child comes to mind, and Kristin Wiig’s filmography has a few instances. The genre is limited, and overwhelmingly white/middle class, but it’s refreshing to see so many directors tackling somewhat challenging stories with a lot of empathy. Although I expect we’ll experience fatigue in the near future, for now these stories are doing something interesting and yielding some laughs along the way. The Skeleton Twins (2014) is in this vein.
The Skeleton Twins doesn’t do anything notably unique with its plot, but its earnestness is clear and endearing. Milo Dean (Bill Hader) and Maggie Dean (Kristin Wiig) haven’t talked in ten years. Milo attempts suicide, and the phone call Maggie receives from the hospital interrupts her own attempt. The estranged twins reconnect, as Milo temporarily leaves behind his life as a failed actor in Los Angeles in order to witness Maggie’s dissatisfaction (and complete denial thereof) with her life and husband, Lance (Luke Wilson).
Many of the narrative beats in The Skeleton Twins are familiar, including the reconnecting of estranged siblings; the sentimental-yet-narcissistic parent; the passionate affairs of a dissatisfied spouse; and the secret affair of a closeted gay man. Yet, screenwriters Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman are so affectionate toward the titular twins that it’s never really a problem. The dialogue is sharp and clever, but also leaves plenty of set pieces for Hader and Wiig to utilize their fun-loving, kinetic comedic strengths. As a result, when the tropes come out, it’s not a problem because Johnson and Heyman are doing enough with the characters to avoid repetitious boredom.
The trope about the secret affair of a closeted gay man is a great example, because the writers use it to challenge the audience. SPOILERS Milo keeps visiting a bookstore employee, Rich (Ty Burrell), who is clearly older but creates an air of sexual tension. We slowly learn that they had an affair when Milo was his student, but Milo and Maggie had to keep it hidden to protect everyone’s reputation. There’s a sense of lost love when we see this relationship from Milo’s perspective, but Maggie sharply alters any misconception: Rich is a child molester. He had sex with Milo when the young twin was fifteen. Milo never confronted that aspect of the relationship. It contributes to our understanding of him as impulsive, but also alters the view of him as self-delusional, making him tragic. We understand his flaws to the point that we ourselves need to be shaken out of his justifications. END SPOILERS
The film’s understanding of its characters and exploration of their flaws is everything for this movie, because the humor relies on tragedies that we need to be able to relate to. Lance is a complete doofus, and we somewhat understand Maggie’s cheating on him (in that we see what drives her to do it, not that we support it). But we’re reminded that he’s also a person, a pretty nice one, and that depth is what helps The Skeleton Twins avoid shallow and mindless cynicism.
I can’t help but feel a tinge disappointed with Milo’s character, though, who—despite having subversive qualities—does feel somewhat over-constructed around stereotypes. Hader portrays Milo as flamboyantly gay, which would be fine if it weren’t also for the stereotypes of a failed-actor-turned-waiter in LA and an obsession with an older man who hides his sexuality to “protect” his family. Also, the frequency with which gay characters in movies are portrayed as having cross-dressed as a kid seems disproportionately high, and makes me wonder how many writers think that cross-dressing is implied by homosexuality.
I don’t mean to diminish Hader’s performance, though, which ultimately is successful because he clearly cares about who Milo is. Wiig has an even stronger performance, as she turns down her typically overdone comedic style and instead taps into Maggie with complete empathy. I rarely remembered that Wiig was acting because her performance is so natural.
The Skeleton Twins isn’t exactly revolutionary, and it doesn’t say much at the thematic level that hasn’t been talked about in several other films in just the past few years. Still, it’s both thoughtful and silly, dramatic and comedic, with all of the good moments that make a movie worth your time. Whenever someone manages to tell a story about interesting characters and manages to entertain the entire time, I think the result is worthy of applause. I won’t be singing The Skeleton Twins‘s praises for years, weeks, or even days to come, but I will gladly suggest it to anyone looking for a dark comedy with more than a little heart.