The Skeleton Twins tells the story of estranged twins, Maggie and Milo, who reconnect in the hospital after Milo attempts suicide. Milo (Bill Hader), is a two-bit actor working a shitty restaurant job in Hollywood and heartbroken over failed relationships. Maggie (Kristen Wiig) still lives in their hometown in New York and is married to a well intentioned but clueless dope named Lance (Luke Wilson). They are allegedly trying to have a child, but Maggie is secretly still on birth control and sleeping with other men. As fate would have it, Maggie receives the call from the hospital about Milo’s suicide attempt just as she is about to swallow a handful of pills herself. So begins the twins’ rocky reunion.
Director: Craig Johnson
Producers: Stephanie Langhoff, Jennifer Lee, Jacob Pechenik
Writers: Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson
Cinematographer: Reed Morano
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Music: Nathan Larson
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Boyd Holbrook, Ty Burrell, Luke Wilson, Kathleen Rose Perkins
Premiere: January 18, 2014 – Sundance
US Theatrical Release: September 12, 2014
US Distributor: Roadside Attractions
The Skeleton Twins seamlessly modulates from comedy to tragedy; a tactic that seems like a clever narrative device at first but eventually begins to feel manipulative. Who do we have sympathy for and why? Which twin is more deserving of despair? We are shuttled from nostalgic snapshots of the siblings as children to bleak peeks into their morally ambiguous lives. “Look how everything went wrong,” the film screams. “Aren’t you so sad that these nice siblings can no longer do anything right?”
In Leslie Jamison’s essay, “In the Defense of Saccharin(e),” part of a collection of essays by about empathy and the ways that we relate and feel for each other, Jamison addresses the human desire to exaggerate our emotions to trick ourselves into thinking that we are experiencing life to the fullest. The Skeleton Twins perfectly exemplifies this inclination: heartwarming, comedic moments precede confessions of loneliness and infidelity. The film takes us to the highest of highs so that we can adequately experience the devastation of the lowest lows. In this sense, the film is self-indulgent. Just as Jamison suggests, the danger of sentimentality is that “we’re mainly crying for ourselves, or at least to feel ourselves cry.” Too much of this film plays on our emotions just to make sure we still actually feel.
There is danger in aestheticizing tragedy. The subject matter of The Skeleton Twins provides an opportunity to have a nuanced conversation about mental illness and family strife, and while the film at times adequately portrays the intricacies of depression and the cloudy morality we experience as living, breathing humans, it ultimately comes off as too neat for its own good. For starters, the narrative is incredibly symmetrical (remember how they’re twins?). The film starts with a double blind suicide, Maggie traveling across the country to comfort her long-lost brother. It ends—spoiler alert—with another suicide attempt, this time Milo coming to Maggie’s rescue (he somehow not only knew that she was going to try to drown herself in the pool where she took scuba diving lessons but also he got there in time? All because of a voicemail he listened to while on the bus en route to Manhattan?). Again, the darkest despair followed by good winning out.
A few other plot points are wrapped up too carefully. Out of the blue, Milo calls their absentee mother to invite her to travel from her home in Arizona to New York to visit the twins. She appears for dinner but lets slip that she was actually already in town for a spiritual retreat in Woodstock (how convenient!). The twins are obviously miffed by this flippant visit but we don’t dwell on the interaction for long. The film ushers the mother in and spits her out, providing just enough screen time so that we can gain a bit of insight into Maggie and Milo’s broken family. Likewise, Maggie’s husband Lance—who is barely portrayed as anything but a caricature of a laughable, Carhartt-wearing, Eggo waffle-eating, lovable idiot—is quickly dismissed after Maggie finds him clutching her birth control and she confesses to sleeping with other men. He is barely allowed to assert his own feelings let alone cry before he exits stage left and we never have to deal with him again.
While these interactions seem to be self-contained, the film does a better job exposing Milo’s illicit relationship with his high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell) as the messy, abusive scandal that it is. Milo is scorned when he shows up unannounced at the bookstore where Rich works. But a few scenes later, the two wind up hotboxing Rich’s car and Milo spends the night. Rich can’t seem to make up his mind if he is gay or straight and if Milo is simply a fuck buddy or his true love. Milo tires quickly of this emotional back and forth and confronts him. Rich’s response is contradictory, proclaiming that he loves Milo while selfishly asking him to pass along a script to his agent. His confession rings hollow, but Milo confides in him anyway. The film leaves this relationship unresolved and this lends a rare moment of emotional authenticity to the story. We want Milo’s relationship with Rich to mean something but we also know it shouldn’t.
Despite these drawbacks, the film is most compelling when it appears most candid. It is undeniable that Wiig and Hader share a chemistry left over from their glory days on Saturday Night Live. The scenes where we get to experience the innocence of their relationship are the most tender: Maggie and Milo hanging out in the dentist’s office, playing around with laughing gas and pretending to fart on each other; Milo lipsyncing to Starship 80s’ “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” as a disgruntled Maggie observes from the couch with folded arms; Milo recounting a story that their father told him in high school and the reality that his life as an adult is not any better; Maggie hopelessly trying to breathe life back into the dead goldfish that she brought home as a present for Milo.
Ultimately, our hearts break for them as they make destructive decisions but despite our empathetic feelings, The Skeleton Twins teaches us to crave superlatives: the hilarity of life, the weight of life. As Jamison says, “melodrama is something to binge on: cupcakes in the closet.” The film wants us to desire the feeling of feeling, rather than the emotion itself.