The Skeleton Twins movie review

Featuring: Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason
Screenwriter/Director: Craig Johnson
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thursday 25 Sep, 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A wonderfully written and performed tragi-comic adult coming-of-age movie – funny, astute and moving.

Twins Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristin Wiig) share a painful past, their father having suicided when they were 14. Once inseparable, they are now in their thirties, and have been estranged for 10 years. Milo is a would-be actor based in LA and Maggie is married and living in their home town in upstate New York.

Hospitalised after a bid to follow in his father’s self-annihilating footsteps, Milo is visited by Maggie, who is similarly crisis-stricken despite outward appearances to the contrary (the notion of hiding behind facades is symbolically represented in repeated flashbacks of the twins wearing masks during childhood theatrical performances). With some initial reluctance, Milo accepts his sister’s invitation to spend time recuperating at her home.

Overtly gay and given to dark, ironic humour, he is a polar opposite to his sister’s decent but straight-laced and eye-rollingly cheerful jock husband Lance. This makes for some amusing interplay, as Milo directs his acerbic pay-out wit at an apparently oblivious and eternally upbeat target. Maggie strives valiantly to defend her well-meaning husband against Milo’s derisive cracks. Less convincing are her attempts in one-on-ones with her bro to justify her choice of spouse and affirm the healthy state of their marriage.

As the twins re-connect with each other and rake over aspects of their shared past, they plug back into the joyful rapport they shared in childhood, but also come to see that they are both still emotionally traumatised, and harbouring toxic secrets arising from destructive and ill-judged personal decisions.

Leads Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig do full justice to an often scintillating and always psychologically astute screenplay, playing off each other with impeccable timing and striking a fine balance of humour and pathos in their characters.

The Lance character is well-managed – again, a function of good screenwriting (Craig Johnson) and performance (Luke Wilson). In less adept hands poor old Lance could have been merely a buffoonish butt of snide jibes, but rises above this sorry status to reveal himself as a sensitive, vulnerable soul in danger of becoming collateral damage at the compulsively destructive hands of a dysfunctional and confused partner.

The twins’ dippy, self-centred New Age ex-hippy boomer mother (Joanna Gleason) is sent up mercilessly during her short time on-screen, and rightly so. She lives in denial of her children’s pain. It is not only their father who has something to answer for here.

Indeed, all the characters are in denial of some type. While some get no closer to facing the truths they fear, for Milo and Maggie the cost of continuing to hide from themselves and each other is too much to bear. They must sink or swim, and their struggle for survival is funny, warming, heartbreaking, and always compelling.

The music is terrif, too. Ironically, the one exception, Starship’s dorky 80s lighter-raiser Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, provides one of the highlights of the movie – a hoot of a miming scene as the twins rediscover their childhood performing mojo.

The takeaway message is a bit neat, and the film runs off the rails towards the end, ending up in Hollywood central. Don’t be put off – these are forgivable glitches in an otherwise fine tragi-comedy. Highly recommended.

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2 thoughts on “The Skeleton Twins movie review”

  1. Ah, I wanted to like this film, and generally did, but I felt it never got beyond its middlebrow family-drama novel roots. I don’t buy the trauma-that-defines-your-entire-adult-life idea, nor that understanding it immediately sets you on the road to recovery.

    I liked Lance best, and thought the characterisation there was lovely.

    I reckon this was a not-bad film that sadly fell for me at the first hurdle, when Milo was in the depths of despair, and as I watched, I pleaded silently, “Don’t let him put the picture in the fish tank!” But he did. It was going to be a slog for the film to redeem itself with me after that.

  2. Good to have your comments, Karen.

    Re: I don’t buy the trauma-that-defines-your-entire-adult-life idea, nor that understanding it immediately sets you on the road to recovery.
    Well, I think you’re overstating the case, but ditto. That’s what I meant by “a bit neat”. But for me, the depiction of the interaction between the characters was otherwise very astute, generally, and the psychology rang true. And I do think that a single catastrophic event at a particularly vulnerable age can, indeed, influence behaviour and perception over many years, if not a lifetime. I base this on my observations of several people who are, or have been, very close to me. That sort of personal data is hardly compelling in scientific terms, but is about as trustworthy and compelling as it gets for me. As to whether “understanding” the source of the trauma and its effects is profoundly healing, I think it can be, but more often is not. As with all things human, the reality is both simple and complex, and can’t be nailed down except in individual cases (perhaps), and in general terms.

    Yep, the treatment of Lance was surprising and refreshing. Double ticks.

    You’re a hard woman, marking the rest of the movie down so harshly for the picture in the goldfish tank – but yeah, that was hokey, and if something like that particularly rankles, I can also be unforgiving on occasions. It’s like there’s a switch – but ours are activated by different triggers!

    I reckon there was a lot to like about the script and performances though, and I thought there were some very warm, moving moments (perhaps heightened for me because I am personally well acquainted with family estrangement). I’m won over by that combo of pluses most of the time.


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