The Skeleton Twins begins with the siblings of the title a continent apart, but both at the same dismal low point. It turns out that Milo (Bill Hader) is a step ahead of his sister, Maggie (Kristen Wiig). As she’s about to down a handful of pills, the phone rings informing her of her brother’s unsuccessful suicide attempt. Though they haven’t seen or spoken to one another in ten years, this seems a cause for reunion, and Maggie is soon on her way to retrieve Milo, bringing him back to their New York state hometown. What follows can safely be termed as the stuff of countless other indie flicks. The filtering of depression through gallows humor is a true staple of art house cinema, and the damaged sibling dynamic has a clear antecedent in the far wiser, wittier You Can Count on Me. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily invalidate a film, though. Smart, sound presentation can overcome a lack of originality. For much of its running time, The Skeleton Twins is worth the effort.
Much of the film’s appeal comes from the presence of Hader and Wiig. Both have given hints of greater range than the modern comedy landscape often allows, especially as more and more films adopt the Judd Apatow model of undisciplined shagginess in favor of packing in the gags. Narrative and character inconsistency is happily sacrificed on the altar of improvised lunacy. Both Hader and Wiig have noted the difference in working with a director who was prepared to keep their comic instincts in check. Director Craig Johnson deserves a lot of credit for that worthy approach. He’s rewarded with affecting, agreeable performances, especially from Hader. Johnson also clearly knows when to let the easy rapport between the two, built during years together on Saturday Night Live, carry scenes. That affectionate familiarity lends added authority and dark poignancy to the counterpoint moments when the characters’ deep, familial knowledge gives them the ammunition to verbally strike at the weakest points.
The film has only one significant misstep, but it’s a brutally damaging one. In what is essentially the closing scene, a dire situation is resolved in a manner that may be dramatically satisfying but that makes no sense within the context of the story. It requires such contortions of logic to believe in the moment that it threatens to sour everything that’s come before. The plot detail does something that the rest of the screenplay (co-credited to Johnson and Mark Heyman) largely avoids: it cheats. The Skelton Twins definitely isn’t perfect up until that point, but it had the integrity to avoid that most lamentable of pitfalls. If only Johnson had held himself and his screenplay to the same level of discipline he expected of his leading actors.