The Skeleton Twins

September 27, 2014
Kristen Wiig & Bill Hader in 'The Skeleton Twins' (2014)
Kristen Wiig & Bill Hader in 'The Skeleton Twins' (2014)

Craig Johnson’s comedy-drama, The Skeleton Twins would have us believe that non-identical twins, Milo and Maggie, have not seen each other for ten years. As most twins of my acquaintance are virtually joined at the hip, this seems a trifle implausible. Such a rift would require a trauma of major proportions, and – although there was a painful incident in Milo’s past – it never seems likely to have caused such a protracted separation.

Once we accept the premise of an initial rift we are left with a story that is funny and touching by turns. The lead roles are played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who have become known to American audiences through Saturday Night Live. We may not get the show in Australia, but it’s easy to recognise the chemistry between comedians.

In a startling first scene, Maggie’s suicide attempt is interrupted by a phone call telling her that her estranged brother in Los Angeles has just botched his own suicide attempt. This lays the foundation of the story: both siblings are depressed, plagued with feelings of failure and worthlessness. There’s obviously a parental problem, but we can’t pin it down until we learn that the twins’ father committed suicide when they were 14. This turns out to be less of an issue than the fact that their mother survives, as a larger-than-life New Age narcissist.

Joanna Gleason is so good in one short appearance as the mother she almost steals the show. The other scene stealer is Luke Wilson as Maggie’s husband, Lance – a good-hearted, regular guy, who adores his wife and is perfectly happy for her gay brother to stay with them in upstate New York while he gets his life in order. Lance is so uncomplicated he makes Maggie and Milo feel like freaks. They speak a different language, their every conversation a conspiracy against his ordinariness.

Lance’s wholesomeness is almost creepy. Every time he opens his mouth he seems like a creature from a different planet – genetically engineered for maximum affability. His vegetal perfection acts as a constant rebuke to Maggie, who has been taking a series of short courses and having furtive affairs with the teachers. It gives a new meaning to the term “adult education”. She admires Lance’s good heart, while being driven to extremes of lust, deceipt and self-abasement. “Maybe good’s not your thing,” says her brother.

Milo has his own issues, chasing up Rich (Ty Burrell), a middle-aged former teacher with whom he had a scandalous affair while still at high school. In trying to put the past behind him, Rich has gone straight. He has a teenage son and a girlfriend, he has left teaching and works in a bookshop. Milo’s reappearance freaks him out, but he is still attracted to his former protégé. For Milo, Rich remains a mixture of love object and father figure. To win his approval he pretends to be enjoying a successful acting career.

With the twins both pursuing secret lives and feeling shocked at each other’s bad choices, there is plenty of room for tension. Each imagines they have a superior understanding of what is right and wrong for the other. Maggie sees a mirror of her own failings in Milo, and vice versa. This leads to a sequence of tightly-scripted heart-to hearts, in which their shared childhood is dragged out and pored over, like the skeleton toys that give the movie its name, continuing the deathly symbolism that plays constantly at the edges of comedy.

A high point of the film – and the scene everyone will remember – is when Milo arrives home one day and finds Maggie cold and angry. He puts Jefferson Starship’s anthemic pop song, Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, on the stereo, and begins to lip synch the words. Eventually Maggie relents and joins in. It’s funny and it’s poignant, because this duo have been derailed by every obstacle, failed at every test, lived on hopes that have never been fulfilled.

The entire story may be summarised in two words: “twins reconnect”. Maggie and Milo are like the male and female halves of a single entity, searching to be made whole. They are Yin and Yang, two pieces that complete a puzzle. The difficulty for director, Craig Johnson, in only his second film, is that this unification cannot be a sexual one. Maggie and Milo are not incestuous – they work off their sexual tensions in their own, inappropriate ways. Their relationship is a kind of cure for those longings that lead only to personal pain.

The Skeleton Twins contains material that will be familiar from many low-budget American indies, but is held together by the deftness of the script and the strength of the performances. Wiig and Hader have collaborated in numerous TV skits but in this film they have to prove they are really actors. Their success is no small feat because there is a lot of heavy material to be negotiated with the lightest of touches.

The Skeleton Twins
Directed by Craig Johnson
Written by Mark Heyman & Craig Johnson
Starring Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Joanna Gleason
USA, rated M, 93 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 27th September, 2014.