There is a very clear hook to the marketing of The Skeleton Twins, one that could go a long way to explain how the film was made and received distribution. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, not at all far removed from their time in the trenches together at Saturday Night Live, trading in their comedic chops for a darker, more dramatic turn as costars. Just finding out whether they can pull it off might be worth the price of admission itself. Having premiered at this January’s Sundance festival, the film, directed by Craig Johnson and written by Johnson and Mark Heyman, casts the comedians as brother and sister Milo and Maggie, estranged for ten years and brought back together by stereo suicide attempts. The two broken siblings form an uneasy alliance of sorts as Milo moves back to New York to live with Maggie and her husband Lance (a particularly beige Luke Wilson) for a spell as they try to recapture some sense of normalcy.
Their development arrested by the death of their father (the ultimate act of self harm looms over the entire film), the siblings have never quite fully adjusted to polite society. Milo’s attempted acting career in Los Angeles has stalled, and his gay lifestyle adds extra stress and pressure to his daily routine. Maggie’s marriage to Lance is about as much of a sham as a marriage can be, built on convenience, societal expectations and the assumption of happiness without the consideration of whether any of her feelings are genuine. These two float through life as pre-corpses, barely registering the world around them. It is a tiresome existence defined by trauma. One can see why they might want to find the exit before nature takes its course.
The leads may be defined by tragedy, but The Skeleton Twins is defined by wild and manic shifts in tone. There is a naked structure to the proceedings, one that is repeated ad infinitum multiple times over the course of its 93 minutes. Milo and Maggie would be at odds thanks to some perceived indiscretion from one or both of them, and would find a way to reconcile (usually through a mix of reminiscence and alcohol) in some demonstrably silly or light-hearted way, only to have their baser instincts lead to another argument or contemplation of suicide. This cycle occurs at least four times, and every time it does feels less genuine and more baldly screenwritten. This would not be a problem were it not for the fact that the subject matter is too serious to support the filmmakers’ attempts to inject levity into the plot. Honestly, the largest problem the film has lies with the verisimilitude of its leads, or the lack thereof.
It is tough to blame either Wiig or Hader for the problems of The Skeleton Twins; they each are decent in their roles, with Hader arguably a bit more effective (though Wiig has a despair hiding behind her eyes that is well-suited to her character). Unfortunately, it is impossible for them to fully disappear into the characters. Considering Wiig and Hader shared the screen for so long on SNL (and even played husband and wife in notably silly roles in Adventureland), it is quite a bit of expectational baggage to overcome. What holds them back are these little moments that are too much like previous bits they have done or characters they have created. Milo’s over the top cliched gay voice he uses as a joke sounds arrestingly like Stefon. Their more absurdist scenes feel like an SNL or improv skit has broken out in the middle of these manic depressive plot cycles. Suddenly, Milo and Maggie are no longer on the screen, and all that can be seen is Hader and Wiig. And when that happens once, it is something that sticks in the back of the mind for the rest of the film.
Further contributing to the film’s artifice is the production design and camera work, all of which is straight out of Sundance Indie Film 101. Sundance films have a reputation for using very similar themes, settings, even shots, and if one were not previously aware that The Skeleton Twins premiered there, it would not be difficult to assume so anyway. The hallmarks are all there, the bird’s eye torso-up shot of a man lying in a tub, a character staring pensively out of the window (his face reflected in the glass) at the colorful foliage as they drive a sleepy highway in upstate New York. Countless shots are recycled from the hallmarks of the genre. It all seems staggeringly familiar, but this is no warm blanket of comfort. It is a cardboard diorama, one that would blow over in a slight breeze.
The Skeleton Twins is a film that wants to be a lot of things. It wants to be a rumination on suicide and the way childhood trauma can come to color one’s experiences for the rest of his or her life. It wants to be about two broken people attempting to find something to make their lives meaningful. This is a worthy story to be told for sure, and one that is at times told competently and even compellingly (the B plot involving Milo and a former acquaintance played by Ty Burrell is quite interesting). But The Skeleton Twins also wants to be comedic and absurdist and to take advantage of its leads. It is possible to make these disparate elements coalesce into a satisfying whole, but The Skeleton Twins cannot bridge the gap. Its warring tones distract rather than engage, making this comedy/drama less than the sum of its parts.