In a movie packed to the gills with mission statement moments, the scene that best encapsulates The Skeleton Twins is one of its more ridiculous ones. Suburban New Yorker Maggie, in the midst of the worst day of her life, discovers that the new goldfish she’s just bought have gone belly-up. She throws the guppies into an aquarium with two inches of water, and tries to resuscitate them with desperate swirling and whacks of a wooden spoon. A teary-eyed, manic, and wasted effort, Maggie’s attempt to save a dead fish too closely parallels the viewer’s feeling of watching good people do all they can to save the terminal project that is The Skeleton Twins.
Kristen Wiig stars as Maggie, a married dental hygienist introduced in her bathroom, a cellphone in one hand, and a prescription’s worth of sleeping pills in the other. At the same time, we meet her brother, Milo (Bill Hader), whose career and relationship failures have led him to attempt suicide in his own, L.A.-based bathroom. Fate sees Maggie’s own attempt delayed by timely news of her brother’s failed one, with Milo’s hospital room staging the first meeting between the fraternal twins in 10 years. With a little effort, Maggie convinces Milo to move with her back to New York, where the troubled twosome spent their childhood.
The coincidence that kicks off The Skeleton Twins isn’t an issue, though the film’s belief that it can always excuse poor logistics for the sake of drama does become one. What’s important is that we buy into the sorry state these two people have arrived at, and indeed we do, though this owes entirely to performance. The film’s opening montage sets sun saturated childhood memories and moody underwater photography to Wiig narrating about the twins’ relationship with their father. As a directing and writing exercise, the sequence is entirely mawkish, save for Wiig’s delivery. But even she can’t keep a closing line like, “Jesus, what happened to us?” from setting off your alarm bells for what’s to follow.
Watching The Skeleton Twins is like seeing an Olympic team of pros play from behind all game. “We can rally from this,” you tell yourself, as the poignancy of Milo’s suicide note being written on the back of a junk mail envelope is undercut by the glibness of the note’s content. “They know what they need to fix,” you say, when Milo knowingly refers to himself early on as a “tragic gay cliché,” only to spend much of the film being written as one.
Unfortunately, whenever Wiig, Hader, and the rest of a fantastic cast start to make up ground, director Craig Johnson’s script (co-written by Mark Heyman) just keeps moving the goalposts. The more the twins get to know one another, the harder it becomes to sympathize with them. Maggie’s run up an impressive tally of affairs in the two years of her marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson), whose major fault seems to be that he’s a healthy individual. Meanwhile, Milo’s acerbic sarcasm can often be more irritating than endearing, winding its way into a shaky subplot about rekindling an affair he had with his former high school teacher (Ty Burrell).
These are characters burdened by a genetic and family history of mental illness, an ugly inheritance that can cause people to do ugly things. But The Skeleton Twins takes the same cloying and solipsistic approach to depression and suicide that many indie crowd-pleasers do. It wants to leaven the darkness at the heart of its story with grounded, quirky characters, but then treat its drama in the most overwrought terms possible. It uses the emotionality of the moment as a smokescreen to distract you from poor writing that confuses exposition for honesty, and brings characters to instances of action and insight by dubious means.
Everyone on screen is doing their best to save material that traffics mostly in cliché and caricatures (Joanna Gleason has a cute, but completely inconsequential scene as the twins’ wayward mother). As former-SNL alums, it’s no surprise that Wiig and Hader still have terrific comic chemistry. The film’s funniest scene sees the two riffing aimlessly, making fart noises and using silly voices for no other reason than to get a laugh. It’s charming, and makes you wish the rest of the film was riding on the same nitrous oxide high the sequence has the characters on. As is, Wilson’s the one who almost runs away with the picture, simply for being a port of stability in a film that demands whiplashing hard swings from the main characters.
The real shame, though, is that this movie is squandering the immense dramatic potential that Wiig and Hader are surely capable of. When they nail every rare authentic note The Skeleton Twins gives them to play, you can’t help but wish you were watching a more deserving vehicle for the two. But The Skeleton Twins always plays too much like its most blatantly uplifting moment, where the stars lip-synch along to Jefferson Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. Like everything else in The Skeleton Twins, the scene asks that the characters and audience trade the emotional integrity of what’s at stake for a burlesque of human drama. The latter is showier and more fun, but ultimately makes for a hollow imitation.
The best of intentions and a great cast can't overcome The Skeleton Twins' poor handling of heavy subject matter.