As "The Skeleton Twins" deftly glides between drama and comedy, it peels away layers of personal history in the lives of its troubled main characters, twin siblings estranged for a decade who share an eerie emotional synchronicity. At the very moment Maggie Dean (Kristen Wiig), a dental hygienist in upstate New York, is about to gulp a lethal fistful of sleeping pills, she receives a call informing her that her brother, Milo (Bill Hader), a failed actor in Hollywood, is in the hospital after slashing his wrists.
Suicidal tendencies may run in the Dean family; their father killed himself when they were teenagers. Their mother (Joanna Gleason, in a brief, amusing cameo) is a grandiose New Age-spouting narcissist with impenetrable emotional armor.
Maggie, a dutiful sister, reluctantly makes a place for Milo in the home she shares with her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). And the peeling begins.
The movie, directed by Craig Johnson (the tiny indie "True Adolescents") from a screenplay he wrote with Mark Heyman (a writer on "Black Swan"), is attuned to the bonds of siblings, especially twins. If countless movies about brothers and sisters reveal common family traits, "The Skeleton Twins" is subtler than most in evoking a mutual sympathy that might be called a cellular understanding.
There are a good side and a bad side to such simpatico, because the person who best understands you can also inflict the most painful emotional wounds. After working closely together on "Saturday Night Live," Wiig and Hader suggest that kind of intuitive connection, even when their characters here are at loggerheads.
|‘THE SKELETON TWINS’
Opens Friday at Dole Cannery Stadium 18 and Kahala 8
Lance, an unflappably optimistic and confident outsider, is aware of Maggie’s instability, which he takes in stride, cheerfully referring to her moods as "land mines" that he has no problem navigating. The three make an appealingly oddball little family once Milo, who is gay, lonely and not entirely comfortable with his sexuality, settles in.
"The Skeleton Twins" is a well-written and -acted movie about contemporary life that doesn’t strain for melodrama and is largely devoid of weepy theatrics. A character-driven vignette, it has no pretensions to make any kind of grand statement about The Way We Live Now.
That’s all the more admirable, considering that the wedge between Maggie and Milo involves a loaded subject, Milo’s former inappropriate relationship with a high school English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell of "Modern Family"). "The Skeleton Twins" takes no stand on the affair, which haunts Milo to the degree that he seems obsessed with the still-closeted Rich, whom he looks up almost as soon as he arrives in town. Their too-brief scenes are fraught with tension and ambiguity.
Maggie has her own sexual issues. Not in love with Lance or even strongly attracted to him, she is fair game for her Australian scuba-diving teacher (Boyd Holbrook). Secretive and weighed down by a deep sense of shame, she seems mired in a permanent funk.
What throws the glumness into sharp and welcome relief are inspired comic scenes in which Milo and Maggie play together like children. Milo jokes about being "a tragic gay cliche." When Lance announces that he and Maggie are planning to have children, Milo chimes in that he can’t wait to be "the creepy gay uncle."
The movie transcends its mopey tendencies when the twins dress up hilariously for Halloween. And when Milo lip-syncs and cavorts to the Starship’s ’80s rock anthem "Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now," "The Skeleton Twins" soars deliriously into comic orbit.
Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times