Film Review: ‘The Skeleton Twins’

A friend recently shared with me, intended as a gentle admonishment, I’m sure, the following bit of wisdom:

“You only make a mistake once.  After that, the same mistake becomes a choice.”

Such is the nature of the dilemma Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and her twin brother Milo (Bill Hader) face in Craig Johnson’s fine new film,“The Skeleton Twins.”

Estranged for 10 years following a family tragedy, the siblings have been thrown together again after simultaneously cheating death on opposite ends of the continent, and they embark upon the task of trying to figure out what happened to their family and how that has impacted their current lives.

Years ago, Milo relocated/escaped to Los Angeles in search of an acting career and a fresh start, but is still without an agent after a decade of trying to get discovered by waiting tables in trendy Hollywood restaurants.

He and his longtime lover have recently parted ways, adding to his misery.  He is adrift, and agrees to a temporary arrangement with Maggie back home in New York, where she is a couple of years into a marriage that isn’t filling the God-shaped hole in her own heart.

Her husband Lance (Luke Wilson, perfectly cast) clearly loves her, and she him, but it’s a measure of Maggie’s damaged soul that, despite Lance’s devotion to her and his Boy Scout-like enthusiasm for her succession of outside interests and easy acceptance of their new family house guest, she is unable to connect with him emotionally. Maggie knows Lance is good for her, but is indifferent.  She keeps her own flawed counsel, with secrets and regrets mounting daily.

This material, in less capable hands, could have made for grim viewing. But thanks to writer-director Johnson’s deft job of balancing the pathos and humor in his and co-writer Mark Heyman’s script, and the inspired casting of SNL alums Wiig (writer and star of “Bridesmaids”) and Hader (also seen in the recently released “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”), the film succeeds by doing what great movies always do: It makes us care about its characters.

Rest assured, there are laughs aplenty, and the film isn’t without its occasional scenes commercially designed for purposes of endearment, but Wiig’s undeniable charm is used judiciously, never threatening to undermine the narrative and tone.

Ultimately, “The Skeleton Twins” is honest and true and tough where it needs to be. At one point, late in the proceedings, when their worlds appear to be in danger of crashing down upon them in irrevocable ways, Maggie reaches out to Milo in desperate need of brotherly reassurance.

In lesser films, he would have pledged his loyal support, which would have cheated us out of the pleasures and surprises here that follow his ambiguous and noncommittal response:

“I’ll do the best I can” he promises her.

For better or worse, it’s a promise he keeps.

Michael Jewel Haley

Michael Jewel Haley is a Bay Area artist, photographer and writer.  He grew up in Redding, and developed his love of movies during Saturday matinees at the Cascade Theater. See samples of his artwork here.

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