From the outset, it is easy to call The Skeleton Twins a small movie. After all, it does center on a small cast of characters, living small lives, in a small town, dealing with their life problems which, while maybe big to them, are small if put into the grand scheme of how the world works. But, much like most best “small” films, the topics it handles are so universal the movie maybe becomes bigger than it even set out to be, tackling issues such as love, family, tolerance and yes, failure, in ways that are both heartbreaking and instantly identifiable.
The story is simple: Milo Dean, a gay, deeply sardonic, wildly unsuccessful actor in LA tries to kill himself while Blondie is blasting on the radio, bottle of vodka in hand. His twin sister Maggie Dean, across the country in the upstate New York town they both grew up in, is standing in front of a mirror, a palmful of pills in hand, a dead stare on her face glaring at her reflection in the mirror (no catchy Debbie Harry choruses here) when her phone rings and she is informed of her brother’s actions. She has not seen him in forever, but she flies to California, grabs him by his bandaged wrists, and somehow persuades him to leave, come back to New York (“It is beautiful this time of year”), and spend some time healing. She has a nice husband, a decent job, a well-appointed home, and is both trying to get pregnant and taking snorkling lessons (she is always taking lessons).
And that is that. The next hour and a half is spent with these people talking, crying, singing, reminiscing, hoping to forget, not admitting to things, and, in general, trying to deal. You’ll laugh with them, you’ll cry with them, you’ll connect to it all on at least on some level. I promise. It is a well written, subtly directed, carefully executed emotional drama of the first order.
Oh, and one more detail: Maggie and Milo are played by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.
Now, if I was woken up in the middle of the night and asked, “QUICK, tell me what two people you’d love to spend 93 minutes in a dark room with?” Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader would likely be the first names I’d blurt out. Skeleton Twins further confirms that instinct of mine, if not for obvious reasons.
Much like some other favorite (or at least favorite-to-talk-about) movies of mine (Punch Drunk Love, My Sister’s Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed and Celeste & Jesse Forever come to mind almost instantly) watching your favorite comedic actors in dramatic roles has a certain poignancy that is almost wrenching. The faces you have grown accustomed to seeing stretched in goofy masks somehow carry real, human emotion with even greater effect. And Wiig and Hader are up to the task. Years of working together day in and day out on SNL have resulted in an easy, natural sibling chemistry, each of them picking up the cues from the other in ways that will feel instantly real to anyone who has had a sibling they’ve been close to (in age, or otherwise). That kind of emotional shorthand is almost impossible to act out, and yet, they pull it off. And while the topics at hand are decidedly dark (Mark Heyman, who co-wrote the movie with director Craig Johnson was previously responsible for such gut punches as Black Swan and Wrestler), the pair do get a chance or two to flex their mimic muscles and those moments are so perfect I don’t even want to write about them for fear of ruining them for you in the movie theatre. The rest of the cast is great as well, including Luke Wilson as Maggie’s sweet and completely out of his depth husband Lance, and Ty Burrell as the Deans’ former English teacher, with issues maybe even greater than Maggie and Milo’s.
And while nothing in this life is perfect (as the movie is bound to remind you as well), the 93 minutes spent with The Skeleton Twins, in their small, unflashy, hypersmart way, almost are.