The Skeleton Twins: A Comedy of Purpose

If you overheard a conversation in my family, you might think that we hate each other. Teasing, mockery, and insults abound when we reunite. We rehash embarrassing old stories, deriving pleasure from one another’s mistakes. But we don’t hate each other, I swear—we’re drawn together by this shared sense of humor. It defines us not individually, but together. Comedy makes my family mine, and that sense of humor I bring with me everywhere always ties me back to the home I grew up in. Unlike many comedies, whose only purpose seems to be making the audience laugh, The Skeleton Twins taps into the complex, human side of comedy. The film explores how humor can push people apart or draw them together, how it can harm or conceal or heal. It looks at how humor really works. The result is a heartfelt, genuine, wonderful movie that still offers more than its fair share of laughs.

Saturday Night Live alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig portray estranged siblings Milo and Maggie who find themselves at distinct but equally problematic crossroads in their lives. Milo struggles as a lonely, unsuccessful gay actor living in Los Angeles, while Maggie battles monotony with an average husband and an average job in her childhood hometown in upstate New York. After not speaking to each other for ten years, the twins reunite when Milo attempts to commit suicide, prompting him to move in with Maggie and her husband (Luke Wilson). What follows might have been predictable, as Milo and Maggie struggle to reconnect, keep secrets hidden, and help one another. But the film explores this familiar sibling struggle in such an original way that it feels incredibly fresh and uniquely real.

The film’s tool is comedy. Not the rapid-fire, perfectly timed, expertly executed scripted comedy that you might expect given Hader’s and Wiig’s previous works (notably Superbad and Bridesmaids, in addition to SNL). With their biting comedic remarks, Milo and Maggie more often irritate, offend, or hurt each other—and the characters around them—than draw laughs and smiles. Milo pokes fun at Maggie’s husband, and she doesn’t want to hear it. Maggie tries to get Milo to open up, and he shuts her out. This is not an exercise in awkwardness but a magnificently executed way of building characters. The two protagonists have been separate for so long, their senses of humor no longer sync. For both Milo and Maggie, humor serves as a coping mechanism, but it’s one that initially pushes them apart rather than draws them together.

The juxtaposition of comedy and drama drives this films exploration of its two main characters. As Milo and Maggie reconnect, their humor starts to fit together again. They shift from wallowing in the status quo to embracing what life has given them. In one memorable scene, Hader pulls Wiig out of a funk by convincing her to lip sync to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship. Not only is it hilarious to watch these two comedic geniuses cut loose, but it underscores just how powerful comedy can be. It brings them together, it helps them through the hard times, and it’s just plain fun. Even after the two start to reconnect though their relationship isn’t perfect: there are still many moments of conflict. But getting to see how good things can be when two people work to establish a deep, shared connection carries us through the dark times. It not only suggests how we can heal but why we should bother to try: because the good times can be so wonderful.

This dichotomy might have been jarring, but the trio of Hader, Wiig, and director Craig Johnson pull it together tightly. Hader and Wiig flawlessly match the drama that the script (written by Johnson and Mark Heyman) demands from them. When they have to be serious you’d swear they’ve never cracked a joke before, and when they go all-out with their comedy they nail every beat with hilarious perfection. Johnson helps by underscoring dramatic moments with darker colors and an original, moody score, while cutting loose with bright lights and costumes when the comedy gets going. Johnson will even smash cut between the two styles, but every time he does it deliberately, to calm down the audience after a tense moment or to bring about the end of one of the good times.

Though smartly directed and terrifically executed, The Skeleton Twins is not perfect. The moments when Milo and Maggie truly argue leave something to be desired: the dialogue is a bit too generic and expected when they start slinging daggers at one another, and markedly less interesting than the subtle disconnect that so often runs under their conversations. The script also doesn’t give much resolution to the cast of supporting characters that surround Hader and Wiig. Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell (of Modern Family fame) deliver similarly uncharacteristic dramatic performances, but the actual plot of the film leaves you confused as to how you’re supposed to feel about them or where they end up at story’s end

Yet these weaker relationships cannot detract from the stunning one at the center of the film. Hader and Wiig create two real, flawed, lovable, hilarious, lost human beings, and the moments of genuine comedic brilliance only make you want to see them through the hard times that much more. This film is funny, it’s sad, but above all else, it’s moving. We want to see Milo and Maggie help each other because they share a unique love for humor and for one another. By employing comedy with the right dosage of introspective flair, Johnson makes a better argument on behalf of sibling relationships than any film I’ve ever seen. I texted my sister as soon as I walked out of the theater, just to see how she was doing.

Grade: A

A comedy with unparalleled dramatic weight