Abandon hope of Stefon and Gilly, all who enter here. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig will blow you away with the comic and dramatic range of their performances in The Skeleton Twins. But this isn’t a series of sketches. This is one from the heart. It’s not that The Skeleton Twins isn’t funny. At times, it’s hilarious, as you’d expect from any movie that teams summa cum laude SNL grads Hader and Wiig. But The Skeleton Twins, directed by Craig Johnson (True Adolescents) from a script he wrote with Mark Heyman (Black Swan), wants to be more than cute and marketable. Its theme is depression, the kind that kills.
Milo Dean (Hader), a gay, failed L.A. actor, and Maggie (Wiig), a married, discontented New York dental hygienist, are twins who haven’t talked in the decade since their father died. What brings them together is suicide. She’s thinking about swallowing pills. He takes more drastic action. When Milo slits his wrists, Maggie flies cross-country to his bedside. Milo calls himself “another tragic gay cliché.” She looks askance as he reads Marley and Me. “What, does the dog die?” he reacts, mock-appalled. Brother-and-sister stuff. Uplifting banter. Underneath, they’re hurting.
The result is that Maggie invites Milo to return to their upstate New York hometown and move in with her and her loyal puppy-dog husband, Lance (Luke Wilson, nicely blending swagger and nuance). Lance brags about how he and Maggie are eager to have a baby. “I can’t wait to be the creepy gay uncle,” deadpans Milo. The kidding is forced, but, hey, everyone is trying.
So far, so formulaic. And then the script gets tricky. Maggie sluts around with her Aussie scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook), the most recent in a line of hookups, and secretly takes birth-control pills. Milo stalks Rich (Ty Burrell), the English teacher who seduced him in high school. The scandalous affair with Rich, who now has a girlfriend and a son, helped widen the chasm between the twins. Burrell, who just picked up his second deserved Emmy for Modern Family, does wonders with a deeply compromised character willing to compromise again when he thinks a lying Milo can help him sell a script to Hollywood.
There’s enough plot here to float a flotilla of daytime dramas, especially when the twins’ New Age mom (Joanna Gleason, spewing perky contempt) flies in from Sedona to show her children “the light.” What raises the movie above the herd and rocks our settled ideas of pop entertainment is the way Hader and Wiig resist the script’s pull to tidy things up. Of course, they’re a hoot inhaling nitrous oxide in Maggie’s dental office. They’re effing uproarious when Milo coaxes Maggie into a levitating, lip-syncing duet to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” But these skeleton twins, dubbed the “gruesome twosome” one Halloween by their father, are damaged goods – “land mines,” is how Lance puts it. Hader and Wiig dig deepest and strike the truest chords when the twins’ defenses are down, when their jokes don’t work, when they’re faced with the truth of their own blasted lives. That’s what makes The Skeleton Twins something rare. It hits you where it hurts.