One example of movie magic is the way a film that seemingly has numerous strikes against it can turn itself into a pleasant experience. This week’s test-tube experiment is Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins. It’s a family drama about an emotionally wounded, lonely, adult gay man and his unhappily married hetero twin sister, reuniting to repair their dysfunctional relationship and share a few comic moments amid the tears. Nine-and-a-half times out of ten, a plot outline like that is enough, all by itself, to send me running for the exit. The fact that the siblings are portrayed by actors Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig didn’t encourage me much, either.
Maybe it’s the sincere, vulnerable way Hader and Wiig expose their nerve endings. Certainly the dialogue by director Johnson and writer Mark Heyman (Black Swan) goes a long way to soothe viewers’ anxiety while Hader’s Milo and Wiig’s Maggie are busy displaying theirs. I may resent being pulled through a maudlin feely-fest that opens with an attempted suicide, but both lead characters operated on me. So did Luke Wilson as Maggie’s revoltingly cheerful hubby and Ty Burrell as Milo’s former teacher, the one who introduced him to gay sex when the kid was fifteen. Before I had a chance to stick my head in the oven over that plot wrinkle, Milo disarmed me by confessing to his sister with a straight face: “Last week I ate pussy.”
For a thumb-sucker with a corporate-rock playlist and multiple sexual predators bothering its heroes, The Skeleton Twins certainly knows how to get a reaction. Dispensing mild shocks is the specialty of ultra-indie producers (and siblings) Mark and Jay Duplass, who made Cyrus, Baghead, and The Puffy Chair. Those mumblecore kings do things to pathetic characters that can make your hair stand on end. So bring a tube of gel with you.