The Skeleton Twins

On paper, “The Skeleton Twins” looks like an amalgamation of Sundance-friendly dramedies, the sort of film that already feels familiar the first time you see it. But in the execution, it benefits from the presence of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, two of the best comedians “SNL” has produced in the last several years. Turns out they’re not too shabby at drama, either, which helps when things get dark here.

Which they do immediately. The film opens with sad gay Milo (Hader) slitting his wrists in Los Angeles while his twin sister, Maggie (Wiig), contemplates a handful of pills over her bathroom sink in New York. The siblings haven’t spoken in 10 years, but Milo’s unsuccessful suicide attempt leads Maggie to invite him to come live with her and her bland husband, Lance (Luke Wilson), in the town they grew up in. The twins reconnect over their different varieties of misery — Milo has had one disastrous relationship after another; Maggie is lying to Lance about wanting to have a baby — and the way their ruined childhood caused them to make screwed-up choices as adults.

Still an emotional trainwreck, Milo tries to meet guys at local bars, and reaches out to Rich (Ty Burrell), a former lover who seems panicked to see him. Maggie, a dental hygienist, makes Milo take a job doing manual labor with Lance, while she takes a scuba class with a hunky Australian instructor (Boyd Holbrook) and is tempted to stray from her marriage. The twins’ New Age mother (Joanna Gleason) shows up for an ill-advised and narratively unnecessary visit. Revealed backstory adds layers to Milo and Maggie’s characters, but the film isn’t really interested in giving their psychologies anything more than a cursory examination.

But there’s no shortage of comedy potential in the premise of damaged adult siblings trying to get their crap together, and it’s here that the film is at its best. The screenplay, by Craig Johnson (who also directed), has some loose ends here, some too-tidy resolutions there, and relies on too many “easy laugh” tropes like Milo and Maggie performing a lip-sync routine. But it also has its share of funny dialogue, not to mention Hader and Wiig’s undeniable comic chemistry. The lip-sync shtick might be an old one, but dammit, it works. The same goes for the scene where the twins get high on nitrous oxide and make each other laugh like siblings (and comedy partners) do. Hader may not be entirely convincing as a real-life gay man (Milo has too much Stefon in him), but Wiig complements him by being relaxed and natural

Johnson’s previous film, “True Adolescents,” was also a derivative story that was elevated by a charming lead performance (by Mark Duplass) and a general sense of congeniality. (It was about a 30-ish Seattle slacker trying to figure out what to do with his life. Sound familiar?) “The Skeleton Twins” is more dramatically ambitious than that, and while it’s only modestly effective at the serious stuff, at least it’s free of sanctimony and preciousness. Its tone, subject matter, and combination of comedy and tragedy makes it resemble “Little Miss Sunshine” — but unlike that film, no one’s going to accuse this one of being full of itself. It’s too easygoing to inspire that kind of contempt. How can you hate a movie that has a giggly Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig making fart noises at each other?

B- (1 hr., 30 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some strong sexuality.)

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