Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins stands a pretty good chance of becoming an art house title with solid mainstream appeal — and it would be nice to see that happen, since this is one of the most appealing films to come along this year. Oh, it’s not perfect. At least one scene stands out in my mind as a misfire, and there’s an aspect of the ending that is so inconclusive that it feels like something is missing. But for anything it gets wrong, it gets so much more right that I feel downright churlish for complaining. There is, in fact, one scene — quite ridiculous on the surface — that’s a little piece of cinematic nirvana. Now, I know that stories involving dysfunctional families are now down to a nickel a dozen (a dime would be overcharging), but this is something new, something fresh, something in an altogether different league. The writing is sharp. The direction is assured and slyly stylish in a way that uses symbolism without calling attention to itself. And the performances are frankly outstanding.
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig star as Milo and Maggie, the skeleton twins (fraternal) of the title. When the film begins, Milo — a depressed, lonely gay man who is not making a go of an acting career in L.A. — attempts suicide. (As a barometer of his loneliness, his suicide note is headed, “To whom it may concern.”) Fortunately, the fact that he’s turned his music up causes complaints and an intervention. At the same time on the East Coast, Maggie is just about to swallow a handful of sleeping pills when the call alerting her about Milo comes through. Though they haven’t seen each other — or apparently talked — for 10 years, she flies out to California, receives a chilly reception but ultimately finds it pretty easy to convince Milo to come home with her. It would be hard to say that being back in his old hometown thrills him. For that matter, Maggie’s altogether too tolerant and utterly bland husband, Lance (Luke Wilson), both amuses and appalls him. Plus, there is a very unresolved relationship lurking there for Milo.
The shrewdness and blissfulness of the film lies in the way it slowly and effortlessly peels back the layers of truth about its characters. It spends very little time dealing with their dysfunctional past. We learn that their father — who seems to have doted on them — committed suicide. We briefly meet their mother (Joanna Gleason), who is so self-absorbed that she only stopped by to see her children because she was on her way to an event in nearby Woodstock. These things only serve as background to the issues of the twins, who are quite capable of being dysfunctional without the need of other family members. As it turns out, Maggie is secretly taking birth control pills while pretending to be trying to have a child with Lance. And though Lance is a really good guy — maybe too good — she is a serial adulteress. Milo, on the other hand, is still obsessed with his old English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell), with whom he had an affair when he was 15. Rich, however, is now a deeply closeted man with a son and a girlfriend, quietly running a bookstore — and who very much does and doesn’t want to see Milo. It’s not a healthy situation, and it doesn’t get more so — at least for a long while.
How all this plays out is constantly surprising while always seeming inevitable — a neat trick. When all the brush is cleared away, it’s really all about the relationship of Milo and Maggie. It sometimes feels like a contest to see who’s the most damaged. (I’d call it a draw.) But it never feels phony or forced, thanks in no small part to Hader and Wiig, who are always real and convincing. OK, yes, the scene in the dentist’s office feels like a sketch for its first half. On the other hand, the improbable scene where Hader pulls her out of a funk by getting her to join in lip-syncing Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is amazing — funny, touching, redemptive and beautifully staged — and worth seeing the film for on its own. But so much of the film is so good that there’s more here than that. It’s special and rather wonderful. Rated R for language, some sexuality and drug use.