The Skeleton Twins is the kind of movie that you can watch and know, with 100% certainty, that it premiered at Sundance. It features big-time comedic actors turning in subdued, “against type” performances in a story heavy on melancholy and dark themes, which wraps up said themes in a suspiciously tidy fashion that runs counter to real emotional insight. It’s perfectly suited for the limousine liberals who flock to Park City each year, looking to be engaged but not challenged in any big way.
All of this might sound harsh (because, well, it sort of is), but The Skeleton Twins actually isn’t bad – just aggressively average.
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader plaly Maggie and Milo, twins who were once thick as thieves, but who haven’t spoken in ten years. They’re brought back together after Milo unsuccessfully tries to kill himself (and hearing news of this interrupts Maggie’s own suicide attempt). Milo moves in with Maggie and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) to recuperate, and the two brood over their lives and what exactly went wrong with them. Like a lot of Sundance faux-indies, The Skeleton Twins smacks of a filmed first draft of a script. There are the weak punchlines to jokes (the awkward silence at a dinner get-together is broken by a crack about farts) that sound like placeholders meant to be replaced later when writers Craig Johnson (who also directs) and Mark Heyman were in a better creative space. But the greatest example is how the movie incorporates a subplot that’s far more intriguing than the main plot, one that could have used more time to develop and made for a better final piece had it been given further consideration.
Hader and Wiig are both competent. The odd thing about these kinds of somber dramas, which draw in comedians to give them the chance to shake up how audiences perceive them, is that these roles can actually be more limiting. Wiig and Hader both ping-pong between goofy sibling antics and suicidal despair, with little variation in between. Wiig got to play more nuanced shades in Bridesmaids, an out-and-out comedy that no one thought to send to a film festival.
In any case, the serious drama stuff mostly falls flat, although Luke Wilson elicits some sympathy as Lance, who is sweet and caring but utterly oblivious to Maggie’s pain. The few moments of light-heartedness are the best, the crowner being Wiig and Hader’s lip-synch duet to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
The best I can say about The Skeleton Twins is that it doesn’t always fall into the cliches you expect it to. A story thread about Maggie and Lance trying to have a baby mercifully does not lead to a pregnancy-solves-everything resolution. But it still just wafts by as a forgettable, unspecial thing, destined to join the ranks of Sundance favorites to forever be watched on Netflix during a night when you have nothing better to do.
The Upside: Fitfully fun. The actors are solid enough.
The Downside: A lot of faux-indie story tropes, wasted potential.
On the Side: Writer/director Craig Johnson’s first feature, True Adolescents, premiered at SXSW in 2009 and starred Mark Duplass and Melissa Leo.