It’s the phone call no one wants to answer. A relative has been hospitalized. He tried to kill himself.
Most inconveniently, when Maggie answers the phone she has to discard the fatal fistful of pills she was about to pop. She has to go deal with brother Milo.
That’s the curtain raiser on “The Skeleton Twins,” a brittle and bruised comedy that manages to find something funny in a damaged, estranged brother and sister who can’t see that if they stop leaning on one another, they’ll both fall down. Again.
Maggie (Kristen Wiig) hasn’t had much to do with Milo (Bill Hader) in years. But his “To whom it may concern, see you later!” note has the L.A. hospital insisting that she bring him home to Nyack. Plainly, she is put out. And just as plainly she’s in no shape to prop up somebody else thinking of ending it all.
This Craig Johnson film starts tripping us up, right from the first. Maggie answers the phone with a furious “I’m on the National ‘Do Not Call’ Registry!” Whatever gay cliche failed-actor Milo was playing out, his sister seems to have it together. She has a house. She’s married to an ever-upbeat, outdoorsy park service employee (Luke Wilson) in their corner of upstate New York. They’re trying to have a child.
Well, her husband is. That’s our first clue about her passion for pills. Then, there’s the mania for self-improvement classes — scuba is the latest. What she does in those classes — hooking up for heated sex with the younger instructor (Boyd Holbrook), with a sad, helpless fatalism — defines her. She’s unworthy, living a lie, trapped.
Milo uses his return to their hometown to confront or rekindle a part of his past, with Rich (Ty Burrell). Bringing their self-absorbed mom (Joanna Gleason, very good) in just completes the picture.
They used to be “the gruesome twosome,” “The Skeleton Twins.” They loved their dad, and each other, playing dress-up, watching bad ’80s romances and lip-syncing to Jefferson Starship.
Now, their fights draw blood and no one around them can predict their mood-swings. They seem to have avoided each other simply because they know each other too well.
“Some of us have our secrets, and some of us have our reasons.”
Former “Saturday Night Live” castmates Wiig and Hader tumble into siblingdom with comfortable ease, which gives their characters — variations on caricatures they’ve played elsewhere — weight. She’s the funny, mercurial “ugly duckling” overcompensating with promiscuity. He’s the (toned-down, here) flamboyantly gay man who isn’t quite managing a life out of the closet.
Wilson, Glee son and Burrell are also a bit on-the-nose, in terms of casting.
So the surprises in Johnson’s film come from the jarring shifts in tone, as abrupt as any manic depressive mood swing, from giddy nostalgia to brutally blunt confrontations over missteps and traumas.
“Skeleton Twins” may not be a wholly fleshed-out character study, and nobody here takes a flying leap out of his or her comfort zone. But the timing of this tale of depression, suicide and how vulnerable we all are to our past, our demons and our shortcomings, is enough to recommend this engagingly melancholy comedy.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and drug use
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ty Burrell, Luke Wilson, Joanna Gleason, Boyd Holbrook
Credits: Directed by Craig Johnson, written by Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson. A Roadside Attractions release.
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