The Skeleton Twins (USA: 2014): What siblings do when childhood is over

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star in Craig Johnson’s offbeat comedy about siblings relating to each other in ways that others cannot. If many of our troubles as adults stem from problems we carry with us from childhood, who else to better understand them than someone who has lived them with you? If this were not a comedy, it would be a very difficult drama to watch. It touches on depression, suicide, child sexual abuse, death, abandonment, compulsion, grief, alcoholism, loveless marriage and infidelity. For the most part, these issues aren’t played for laughs or shock value. The humor in the film comes from watching a caustic Hader and revitalized Wiig play off each other in ways that make us believe that they were once very close and happy together as siblings and want to enjoy those experiences again. At the same time, they hurt each other, often thinking that they are only doing what is best for the other (and they often are).

The movie opens with Milo’s (Hader) suicide attempt. He is a failing actor living in Los Angeles whose boyfriend has left him. He tries to write a suicide note, but can only manage a brief goodbye with a smiley face. I think he realizes that writing out the entire reason he got to this point would take too long. Across the country in Westchester County, New York, his sister, Maggie (Wiig), is also attempting suicide, but is stopped when the phone rings to inform her that her brother has been hospitalized. She hasn’t spoken with him for ten years, but flies to L.A. to take him home for awhile.

At Maggie’s home, Milo is inserted into her life with her gung-ho, optimistic husband Lance (Luke Wilson). We also meet tense and sexually conflicted Rich (Ty Burrell), a former teacher with whom Milo had a sexual relationship during high school. The hilarious Joanna Gleason makes an appearance as the siblings erstwhile “mother.” And Boyd Holbrook plays Billy, Maggie’s libidinous scuba instructor, the latest of several continuing education teachers with whom she has affairs.

During a series of events and discussions throughout the film, the viewers becomes aware of the reasons these two are depressed and why they just can’t move away from those feelings. This isn’t a story of character revelation and discovery. The two leads have a very good grasp of what ails them, but they tragically still act in compulsive ways that ensure that their current outlook will never improve. Their lives started to unravel during adolescence when their father died. They realize that opportunities have closed for them. but cannot adjust to adult roles that are no longer optimistic extensions of the childhood dream that one can become anything one wants to be.

There are scenes in the Skeleton Twins that are uncomfortable to watch, especially those involving Milo and Rich. The idea that Milo still carries a torch for his former molester challenges many preconceptions I have about that topic. However, watching Milo attempting to rekindle feelings in Rich, who is now married and has an adopted son, is one of highlights of the film. Ty Burrell will probably get a few award nominations for his performance.

****1/2 out of five.

IMDB Link: The Skeleton Twins

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