The Skeleton Twins

(2014) *** R
93 min. Roadside Attractions. Director: Craig Johnson. Cast: Luke Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader.

/content/films/4725/1.jpgHaving shared a trench in childhood, siblings have a unique way of calling each other on their crap, and perhaps that "goes double" for twins, whose bond goes all the way back to the womb. A twin sib knows where all your skeletons are buried, one reason Craig Johnson's dramedy goes by the title The Skeleton Twins.

Another reason is that Maggie and Milo—the twins played by erstwhile SNL castmates Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader—share a morbid sense of humor and suicidal tendencies. Writers Johnson and Mark Heyman establish the bond between Maggie and Milo with an opening sequence of both characters attempting suicide. Since Milo comes closer to succeeding, his attempt becomes the "cry for help" that reunites the siblings after a ten-year estrangement, but it's clear that Maggie needs Milo as much as he needs her.

Milo's life resembles being stalled at a stoplight: alone after failed relationships, and jobless after umpteen auditions, the Angeleno actor has good reason to retreat to Maggie's upstate New York home when she somewhat reluctantly offers it. But it's hardly an escape to return to the place they grew up, a place that also set the scene of a relationship that has continued to haunt Milo. Inevitably, Milo reconnects with Rich (Ty Burrell), the closeted older man whose relationship with Milo drove the wedge between him and his sister.

Meanwhile, Maggie's hardly the portrait of stability. She plays house with a caring husband (Luke Wilson's Lance, who's not clueless, though perhaps clue-deprived), but like some kind of Ancient Greek goddess, she's cursed with the inability to love and appreciate him in return. And so she finds herself tempted by her strapping scuba-diving instructor (Boyd Holbrook), and thereby starts cooking up her latest recipe for disaster.

The endearingly flawed sibs prove all the more likeable through their pronounced, shared sense of humor, the last line of defense against depression. Wiig and Hader's shared history beautifully informs their entirely credible screen relationship, which can be as testy as it is loving, as distressingly haunted as it is funny (reestablishing himself as a screen presence, Hader demonstrates his range by traveling miles from SNL's Stefon). Under Johnson's well-calibrated direction, the supporting cast follows Wiig and Hader's leads with performances of subtle psychological and comic sensitivity: along with the top-shelf turns by Wilson and Burrell, we get precision work from Joanna Gleason as the self-involved mother who has consistently compromised her kids' emotional well-being.

The Skeleton Twins doesn't always burst with fresh insight, but it does productively capture the mood and character of that most unwelcome of house guests, depression. The harmonious work of cast and crew recalls Carol Bialock's poem "House by the Sea": "one day/(and I still don't know how it happened)/The sea came./Without warning./Without welcome even.../And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.../you give your house for a coral castle/And you learn to breathe under water."

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