The Skeleton Twins

September seems a little early to start the now traditional holiday parade of dysfunctional family dramas, but writer/director Craig Johnson gets a jump on things with his tale of suicidal siblings who destroy other people’s lives when they’re not destroying their own.


It’s not as grim as it sounds, thank the Lord, and actually has a fairly positive sorta-pro-family message, as well as a fair amount of laughs, among the really low lows.

In the opening, Milo (Bill Hader) is killing himself in a bathtub, but screws it up and the hospital winds up calling his estranged sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) to let her know. The call interrupts her attempt to kill herself, fortunately, and the two end up at Maggie’s house, rekindling their relationship.

Maggie’s other big relationship is with her fiancee, Lance, played by now archetypal average guy/everyman Luke Wilson. Wilson is an incomparably decent guy, whose attraction to Kristen Wiig is a little unclear, except that, by all appearances, he seems to love her in a very normal way that includes navigating her moods and not holding her outbursts against her.

Wiig is as awful to him as a girlfriend can be, and the movie teases that awful conceit of presenting him as somehow unworthy because he likes wall climbing and toe shoes. Also, he treats Milo and Maggie’s mom (played by the always delightful Joanna Gleason, who manages to be as delightful as she is by implication horrid) with common courtesy.

But this works because the movie just toys with the idea: Milo and Maggie are dysfunctional, not Lance. The movie as a whole works, I think, because there’s little attempt to justify the awful mess these two make out of their lives. It’s more about how they support each other, even when they’ve brought their lives down around their ears.

I think dysfunctional stories are often autobiographical, and the authors are thus inclined to justify the characters’ awfulness, but it’s always—always!—easier to identify with the characters when the movie just shows the awful behaviour without judging or justifying.

It’s interesting to have a movie which makes the argument “You shouldn’t kill yourself because your siblings are counting on you to save them” against suicide, but again, that works: When the twins are apart and alone, suicide seems like a reasonable answer, but when they’re together, they at least share that level of responsibility—toward each other.

The trick is to not drive each other apart with their awfulness, though.

Hader and Wiig have great chemistry, of course (see Adventureland, where they play husband and wife), and manage to squeeze a lot of laughs out of their dark circumstances. (I would not be surprised to learn that the funnier scenes were improvised.)

The acting is good all around. Ty Burrell (The Hulk, Peabody and Sherman) plays a sleazy teacher/writer. Boyd Holbrook (A Walk Among The Tombstones, Gone Girl) plays a sleazy SCUBA instructor. Yeah, there’s a lot of sleaze in this movie. Hey, dysfunctional family dramas—they’re about 90% sleazy.

Mark Heyman (Black Swan) co-wrote the script with the director.

We’re not actually inclined to like these films, really, but The Boy and I did, for the strong characters, for the lack of “cheap outs” (“I had a bad childhood, so I’m entitled to be bad now!”), and for putting the “fun” back in “dysfunction”.

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