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Film Review: "The Skeleton Twins"

Not exactly Hansel and Gretel


If nothing else -- and sadly, there is not much else -- "The Skeleton Twins" demonstrates once again that just about every movie entered in one of those ubiquitous film festivals wins some kind of prize, and that many even win a lot of prizes. The picture arrives in this region having won a screenwriting award at Sundance -- and was nominated for Sundance's Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival. That this dreary little comedy attains such awards, however, may at least encourage any ambitious filmmaker with enough money, whatever the level of talent of skill, to soldier on in the medium.

A voiceover provides a bit of history for the two major characters, accompanied by intermittent shots of two young children whose father plays with them while wearing a skull mask, and gives each one a small toy skeleton, a motif that recurs throughout the picture.  Opening in the present, the movie crosscuts between two adults, the grown-up twins, Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig), as each attempts suicide. 

The more interesting of the two, Milo, a gay, failed actor, dumps a picture of himself and his lover in an aquarium, sits in a bathtub, and slashes his wrists.  As she is about to swallow a handful of pills, Maggie receives a telephone call from a hospital in Los Angeles, informing her that Milo has survived his desperate act; though they haven't spoken in 10 years, she travels to California and convinces her brother to return with her to their hometown in upstate New York, where the major action takes place and all their history emerges.

Maggie's husband Lance (Luke Wilson) welcomes Milo, treating him with kindness and generosity throughout his stay. The sullen, neurotic Milo generally responds with sarcasm and condescension, while he and the equally neurotic Maggie argue incessantly about their past. Desperate for some sexual connection, Milo looks up his former high school English teacher (Ty Burrell), the man who first seduced him, a disastrous decision; he also visits a gay bar only to discover that unfortunately, it's "Dyke Night."

Lance tells Milo that Maggie takes a series of courses, in French, salsa dancing, and now, scuba diving. Actually, Maggie sleeps with the instructor in all of them, including a couple of quickies with the scuba teacher (Boyd Holbrook). She confesses her practice to her brother, wondering if she is a whore, but he reassures her that she is a desperate housewife "with whore-like tendencies."

As the tiresome conflicts between the siblings wear on, they begin to find some points of reconciliation, particularly when they bond at Maggie's office (she is a dental hygienist) while sharing the dentist's nitrous oxide. They giggle uproariously -- it is laughing gas after all -- and Maggie farts all over the frame. That scene provides perhaps the high point of humor, though not for this viewer, in this purported comedy.

Whatever the ability of the two principal actors, their characters rarely achieve much in the way of sympathy; the director apparently never realized that the audience should at least like somebody in the narrative, something Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig never achieve -- nobody could care much about these self-pitying, self-absorbed twins, truly skeletons. The only actually likable person in the whole movie is Maggie's husband Lance, a decent, well meaning, ordinary guy who does his best to befriend Milo and support Maggie, only to be rewarded with hostility and betrayal.

The relentless neurosis of the two main characters eventually smothers every other possibility of meaning or emotional connection in this very small film. Their constant expressions of dissatisfaction with the way their lives have turned out, hardly a unique condition, never change; their hopelessness barely arouses any compassion.

"The Skeleton Twins" finally only creates puzzles about its load of prizes -- its characters are generally repellent, its resolution hardly seems plausible; and its reiterated statements of disappointment and failure prove almost nothing. We all fail, after all, every day of our lives, and very few people care, a very real subject, if not particularly promising for comedy.  The motif of skulls and skeletons turns out to be most appropriate for this dead work.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was edited to reflect the number of awards and nominations "The Skeleton Twins" has received.