As the holidays get closer we'll all be thrust together with family we may love, but why are we stuck with them 24/7. There are countless Christmas-themed movies about spending awful holidays with equally awful extended families, but Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins says it doesn't have to be the holidays for your family to drive you nuts. Tightly controlled by leads Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, The Skeleton Twins is both funny and heartfelt, frustrating and endearing, in equal measure.
Maggie and Milo (Wiig and Hader) haven't seen each other in a decade, but are thrust together when Milo tries to commit suicide just as Maggie contemplates the same thing. Forced to inhabit the same roof for the foreseeable future, the two come to grips with their childhood and what's forced them to spend so much time apart.
Johnson and co-screenwriter Mark Heyman know how to mine humor out of despair because we're introduced to Maggie and Milo in the middle of their darkest moment; Milo slips into a bath as it fills with the blood from his slit wrists, while Maggie stands in front of a mirror with a handful of pills. It's hard to imagine how you, and these two characters, will do a lot of smiling over 90-minutes but after that they're forced to confront themselves and their relationship as siblings. The "suicidal gay sibling living with their equally disfunctional sister" might seem ripped from Little Miss Sunshine; even Milo says he's a "gay cliche," but the movie doesn't stay in that mode for long as it's the launchpad for a lot of introspection, heart, and affection.
Maggie and Milo are damaged in different ways by their own father's suicide, and the remarriage of their mother (a smarmy Joanna Gleason). There are flashbacks employed, but never more than the individual memories the two have about each other, anchored together by a skeleton keychain they toss around. When Maggie says "there are worse things in life than being a shitty mother" to her own mother, the audience doesn't need anything more than that. Anyone who's had a tempestous relationship with their parents can identify with the hurt and the self-pity each character holds to their parents.
When the characters aren't wallowing in their own problems, they're realizing how much they need each other. Maggie and Milo have been apart for so long, yet they immediately reconnect and realize what a great team they make. Much of this works because of the lengthy friendship Hader and Wiig had working on Saturday Night Live. They know each other's moves by heart, anticipating the other's reaction which only strengthens the unspoken bond Milo and Maggie are supposed to have. When Milo breaks into a lip-synched rendition of "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," Wiig is on-point, not just because the script demands it, but because she knows Hader so well.
Hader and Wiig are the life's blood of the film, giving raw performances we haven't seen from them in past films. Hader is the standout, taking a character whom, on the surface, is cliche and imbuing him with pathos. Milo obviously has grappled with so much, yet can't catch a break. His scenes opposite Ty Burrell as a past flame are tender and also grueling because of how Burrell's character has to treat Milo. It's easy to compare Milo to Steve Carrell's character in the aforementioned Little Miss Sunshine for the reasons I mentioned above. Where Hader differs in the exploration and dimensionality to his character. Milo isn't there purely to dispense wisdom or get over a bad breakup; the breakup that caused him to attempt suicide is merely the catalyst towards finding who he is and the ability to reconnect with the person who understands him best.
Conversely, Wiig's Maggie worries she's becoming her father, and thus tries her hardest to fight against those feelings only to wind up in a life she's unhappy in. Her fears and failures have wider implications than Milo's because they don't involve just her. Luke Wilson plays Maggie's doofus husband, Lance, a character that is pretty annoying because of his perpetual optimism (or maybe I'm just a cynic), but he grows on you because he is the best character out of everyone. Maggie says, he's the best guy one could marry but is the checklist enough to justify their incomptability?
The Skeleton Twins isn't rewriting the wheel nor is it the end all, be all of dramatic films. It's a perfect character piece about two damaged individuals realizing their familial connection makes them stronger. The performances, from Hader and Wiig in particular, create dramatic impact both with laughter and tears.
The Skeleton Twins arrives on DVD and Blu-ray December 16th