If not for Blondie’s “Denis”, three things wouldn’t happen. The blood floating from both sides of the bottom of the screen as the drunken Milo lies in the bathtub to die? It probably wouldn’t catch you off guard like it does (even after you’ve seen him start scribbling his suicide note: “To whom it may concern: see ya later J!”). The neighbors, rattled by Clem Burke’s hulking drums, wouldn’t get the super to intervene and go into his apartment and accidentally thwart his death. And The Skeleton Twins might not have found its tone.
And a strange tone it is. A bi-polar mixture of suicide and pop songs that wouldn’t work for a single second if not for the mesmerizing performances of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. I’m surprised to use the word “mesmerizing” to describe two Saturday Night Live actors, but I’ll keep going. Transformative. Dense. Intense. Spellbinding. Heartbreaking. And, what the hell, Oscar-worthy. Without this duo in the center, the whole thing would collapse (and it gets really close) under its own increasingly hefty weight. And I’d be stymied to think of any other pair of serious act-tors who could pull this thing off.
But back to that suicide attempt. Although he dismisses his double wrist slitting as an act of being drunk and melodramatic, Bill Hader’s Milo – an unemployed actor living in LA – has plenty of reasons to buy the farm (we don’t know them yet, but they get doled out later, and many movie characters have killed themselves for less). Meanwhile, his twin sister Maggie (Wiig) back in upstate New York is just about to chug down a handful of pills when she gets a phone call from the hospital about her brother and flies out to be by his side. We don’t know why she’s suicidal either yet, or why these twins haven’t seen each other in 10 years. But the chemistry crackles from the get-go as they immediately fall back into a lived-in rapport of defense mechanism zingers and stingers. You have no trouble believing that these two, who look nothing alike, came out cracking wise from the same womb. Plus there’s a well-played Marley and Me joke in the hospital waiting room that gives audiences their first big laugh after the morbid setup of Stefan and Gilly trying to off themselves.
So, Maggie brings her big gay brother back to her home in the picturesque “Martha Stewart wonderland” where they both grew up, so he can air out. It’s there we meet her toe shoe-wearing, fantasy football-playing, indoor rock-climbing hubby Lance, played to maximum affability by Luke Wilson. Milo can barely hold back his snark at his sister’s domesticated life (they go salsa dancing!) with this gentle oaf, but he still volunteers for the role of “Creepy Gay Uncle” when Lance says, “We’re trying to get pregnant.” He uses “we’re” because he’s trying not to sound sexist. He’s so sweet, and so doomed. You can’t help but root for Wilson’s goofy cuckold. But you can understand why Maggie wants to check out and why she really doesn’t want to be part of that “we’re.” Milo doesn’t leave, because there’s nothing, and nobody, waiting for him back in LA. And while he’s back in his hometown, there are scores to settle besides his unresolved rift with his sister: the biggest being an old flame from his school days (Ty Burell, never better in a really complex role).
From there, it’s hard to explain what happens next to The Skeleton Twins (named for their matching Day of the Dead tattoos) without spoiling the entire thing. But if the twins were telling you about their film, they’d quickly spoil it for you. They’re self-saboteurs who instinctively wreck every good thing life gives them while joking about it, and suicide just runs in the family (that’s how their old man went out). They’re the types who mercilessly make fun of their own grief counselors, with chakras that can’t be balanced by their no-good new age hippy mom (played with relish in a brief appearance by Joanna Gleason). They’re damaged goods, but they’re the only people in the world who can stand, and understand, each other.
This could have turned into treacly pap fast, but it dares to stick to its pendulum-like pop song/Sylvia Plath rhythm at the risk of turning off its audience. For every minor victory the twins have, misery strikes back twice as hard, yet it somehow finds a groove in its bi-polarity. That’s mostly due to Hader, who manages monologues in a single eye roll and tugs at your ducts by reigning in the 10,000 facial muscles he typically flexes. And I’ve never liked Wiig more, ever. Whenever she succumbs to her baser instincts (which is often), she doesn’t make it easy. There’s a 10-second aftermath of her latest fuckup, where the camera captures bombs exploding inside her face, that’s so … real. I never knew she had it in her. And while both leads show surprising dramatic restraint, they’re still as funny as you’d expect. But it comes from an inner hell and not a lording Lorne Michaels.
There are many great hat tricks in The Skeleton Twins, one of many standouts being the Starship lip-synch scene. When it begins, you dread a crappy Motown sing-along moment straight outta Stepmom. Instead, it turns the theme to Mannequin into catharsis (I welled up against my better instincts). It’s a tight 93 minutes, too, as director Craig Johnson doesn’t dawdle on scenes that others would dwell on. It’s no surprise that the Duplasses had a hand in this. Some viewers save tiny dramas like this for home viewing, but Frozen River lenser Reed Morano immerses us in autumn and makes this worth the big screen. Thank god the practically blind Paul Feig didn’t make this. I wish the drama didn’t pile on so heavily in the final leg, but it all manages to gel. And sometimes the drama to comedy to more drama gets tiresome, but, like the Twins, they’re wholly dependant on each other.