It was inevitable that The Skeleton Twins, with its two beloved SNL alums headlining as an acerbic brother-sister duo, would be marketed as a comedy: This is a film about two inherently funny characters whose relationship is predicated on making each other laugh, and it features plenty of solid gags as a result. But for estranged twins Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig), humor is first and foremost a defense mechanism, a smokescreen, a plea for attention, and The Skeleton Twins is ultimately most interested in what its jokes are implying or obscuring about the jokesters themselves. In spirit, plot, and even setting, the film’s closest cinematic cousin is You Can Count on Me: Both films follow a wounded not-quite-young man as he returns to his hometown in upstate New York, crashes with his ostensibly more put-together sister, who has her own fair share of problems, and in his attempts to heal drudges up buried secrets and unspoken vexations. If that doesn’t sound like a comedy, that’s because it most certainly isn’t. This is a film that opens with two botched suicide attempts and only gets darker from there; every chuckle that follows is tinged with morbidity.
Milo has spent the last 10 years in Los Angeles, trying and failing to make a living as an actor, while Maggie has remained in their hometown, marrying good ol’ boy Lance (Luke Wilson) in a clearly deluded effort to “grow up,” as she brashly puts it to her brother. Both are depressed enough to contemplate suicide, and when Milo is hospitalized following a nearly successful attempt, Maggie obviously empathizes with his situation and volunteers to rehabilitate him in their childhood home. What follows is a slow reveal of the childhood traumas that triggered the pair’s initial schism, prompted in part by Milo’s reconnection with an old flame, closeted bookstore-owner Rich (Ty Burrell). One of The Skeleton Twins’s greatest strengths is how it handles Milo’s homosexuality, or rather, how it doesn’t handle it at all. Though his sexual history—with Rich and others—is fraught for many reasons, it’s not at all because Milo has any hang-ups about his own gayness; the most he ever comments on it is in asides about his excitement about being “a creepy gay uncle.” Hader, for his part, couldn’t be further from the Stefon register in his acting, as this is a sensitive, enormously detailed performance that grows richer and richer with each revelation about Milo’s past.
Though Hader is the standout, Wiig matches him in calibrating a character whose early idiosyncrasies make more sense as the plot unfolds, and it’s to her credit that Maggie resembles more of a train wreck than Milo by the film’s conclusion. The ensemble is uniformly excellent as well: Wilson’s easy naturalism and Burrell’s ball of nerves contrast well with the leads, and Joanna Gleason is a one-scene KO as the twins’ delusional, New Age-obsessed mother (“I’m sending you the light!”). Unfortunately, the script by Johnson and Mark Heyman occasionally undermines the performers’ work: Adept at scenes following the more mundane day-to-day goings-on of its characters, as soon as the script wants to convey a point, it takes exasperatingly literal routes, either in the form of dialogue (“God, what the hell happened to us?”) or on-the-nose plot twists; the ending in particular is simply unworthy of everything that comes before it. The single most powerful accomplishment of You Can Count on Me is that, while no character ever utters its titular aphorism out loud, it’s felt resoundingly by the end. The Skeleton Twins is too obvious to manage that kind of final unspoken poignancy,