THE SKELETON TWINS. Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell. Directed by Craig Johnson. 93 minutes.Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language, sexual references and drug use).
‘The Skeleton Twins’ is populated by popular comedic actors and actresses; indeed the four top-billed cast members are hardly known for their dramatic work. What is surprising then, is that director and co-writer Craig Johnson has created a powerfully moving, compassionate and achingly funny drama loaded with brilliant performances.
Estranged twins Milo and Maggie Dean (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) have not spoken for ten years. When we meet the pair, they are both coincidentally turning to suicide on the same day. A combination of lucky timing and hesitation sees them escape death, and Milo moves into Maggie’s home in New York at the suggestion of doctors. Milo is a depressed homosexual man struggling with his failure to ‘make it’ as an actor in Los Angeles. Maggie and her husband are supposedly trying for a child, but she is secretly taking contraception and has also had several affairs with other men. The pair are clearly in a great deal of personal trouble, yet give off the impression that ‘everything is terrific’.
We are introduced to Maggie’s husband Lance (Luke Wilson), a jovial and virile sort with an outdoor job and irrepressible optimism. Milo describes him as a ‘big Labrador retriever’, and the description is apt – Lance is loyal to a fault and constantly upbeat. Milo also reconnects with a former lover Rich (Ty Burrell), who is initially shocked and somewhat scared by his reappearance, but they soon pick up where they left off. It is clear to the audience from Rich’s response that their relationship is somewhat illicit, however why this is the case is not clear. Milo tells Rich that he is very successful in LA, and Rich is happy for him.
As the twins begin to reconnect and their familial bond is salvaged from the ravages of time apart, their lives seem happier and fuller. The audience is led to question why they became distant in the first place. As Milo, Hader is wonderfully real and sympathetic – he is a source of tender humour and heartfelt emotional beats, and never allows the character to be defined simplistically by his sexuality. Opposite Hader, Wiig is equally terrific as Maggie, who struggles to be satisfied by her ostensibly perfect and supporting husband. Her shortcomings are more apparent than Milo’s, but she is relatable in her unquenchable desire for more. The pair’s chemistry is great, having worked together extensively on the comedic American television show ‘Saturday Night Live’ for several years, but it goes beyond their usual caricatures and sketches because they feel so genuinely real. The scene in which the dup lip-synch and dance to Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop US Now’ is heart-warming and hilarious, and for my money in contention for one of the best film scenes of the year to date.
As the catalyst for their split becomes apparent, hurtful words and exchanged and both twins experience another spiral into their lowest moments. With only each other to cling to, they have to move past their troubles and be each other’s shelter. Craig Johnson and his co-writer Mark Heyman won the Dramatic Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and it’s easy to see why. The script is quirky without being alienating for the audience, and moving without relying on cheap sentiment. Johnson also directs with a sensitive touch, and shows an admirable level of trust in his surprising cast.
Both Hader and Wiig have given their all to this film, and they are a winning combination. Ably abetted by a great script and trying director, the film is as undeniably eccentric as most ‘indie’ American films, yet provides an above average example of such fare.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 25.