There’s a line in the terrific new film, The Skeleton Twins, where Kristin Wiig’s melancholy Maggie tells her suicidal sibling Milo, played by Bill Hader, that life isn’t about success. “Few people are stars,” she suggests, “The rest of us are just walking around wondering how our lives got so bad.”
For these mentally unbalanced offspring, each attracted to both the danger and the depression of living outside the lines, there’s no need to speculate. He blames her for something that happened back in high school. She argues that his lack of support, and their distant, distracted mother, has brought about an obvious discomfort about who she is.
You see, when he was young, Milo was involved in a scandal that, to this day, remains a communal secret. Even the other party in the particular “problem”, a sympathetic man (Ty Burrell) who now is trying to move on with his life, can’t understand the obsession. While he lies to himself, Milo continues to mine the past for possible happiness.
At least Maggie is living in the present, though her marriage to an uncomplicated good guy named Lance (Luke Wilson) is filled with lies and infidelities — all on her part. He wants children. She still takes the pill. He is honest and forthright. She sleeps with her scuba diving instructor (Boyd Holbrook).
Separated by thousands of miles, their lives continue on. They haven’t spoken in over ten years. Then Milo tries to commit suicide. Failing, Maggie gets the call just moments before she herself is readying to swallow a bottle of pills. She goes out to LA to fetch him.
He returns to the small town in upstate New York where they both grew up, and where their doting father ended his own life by jumping off a bridge. Mom (Joanna Gleason) makes a single sad appearance, her attentions more focused on an upcoming New Age retreat than her obviously suffering kids.
However, as The Skeleton Twins points out, these are not children. These are arrested adolescents, adults who just can’t seem to break away from the mindset that has made their lives a living Hell all throughout adulthood. Does Milo hate Maggie for spilling his secret (he’s openly gay, but what happened in high school occurred during a far less tolerant time)? Perhaps. Does she hate him for walking out, heading to LA, and more or less forgetting her? Certainly.
This is not a sibling rivalry. It’s a passive aggressive war with the players just as willing to break into a lip sync version of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” as cast horrid, drunken aspersions at each other outside a local bar.
All throughout Craig Johnson’s compelling dramedy, we get snippets of real conversations, reminders of our own estrangements and the often ridiculous reasons behind them. It’s a movie that makes you wish there was a time machine, a contraption that would allow the adult versions of Milo and Maggie to go back to their childhood and clarify how clueless they really were.
After their Dad’s death, both children were looking for acceptance. She found it in socializing and sex. He did too, but in a questionable age difference circumstance. The resulting rupture has them both angry, scarred, and hurt. It also has them desperate for their old reconnection.
Yet it’s clear that Milo and Maggie are bad for each other. She continuously sparks his more self-destructive side. He gets her to abandon her dental hygienist professionalism and sniff nitrous with him. He lets her husband know that she can’t be trusted. She reminds him that, no matter the intention, underage is underage. Johnson and his co-writer Mark Heyman (Black Swan) don’t just come out and spell the situations out for the viewer.
Instead, they give these topics a “once over more than twice” sheen, suggesting that the two “M”s are destined to deconstruct their problems over and over again, relying on a kind of shorthand and suggestion to make their repetitive points.
Thankfully, both Wiig and Hader are up to the challenge. Their chemistry is easy and affirming, their insights into these characters far beyond the stereotypical basics. Indeed, Hader doesn’t exaggerate Milo’s lifestyle. Instead, he inhabits the man’s homosexuality with both a recognizability and a realism that’s hard to shake.
Elsewhere, Wilson is perfect as the clueless cuckold, his self-effacing answer to everything clearly meant to show his undying devotion to his less than stellar spouse. As the man who made most of this happen, Ty Burrell is given little to do. He’s a sketch, a skeleton in the closet, if you will, who doesn’t deserve the place in Maggie and Milo’s life that he holds. And Wiig is wonderful, capable of looking both wounded and wily in the same sentence.
And yet, it doesn’t matter. Anyone with brothers and sisters, siblings who get along on the holidays but otherwise shun the family unit like Christians at an Evolution Convention, will “get” The Skeleton Twins. It’s one of the best films about the lingering effects of dysfunction that’s been made. The acting is superb, the story settled between memories and anecdotes, accusations and appreciations.
Better still, Johnson doesn’t try to wrap everything up in a neat little package. Instead, he keeps things ambiguous and unclear. We’re not even sure if Milo and Maggie are “better”, or just buffering until another round of misery envelops them. Perhaps that’s why they’re so good/bad together. No one else understands them.
Like everyone else, however, they are destined to walk around wondering how their lives got so bad. Hopefully, there are no mirrors where they are going.