Rated R. Running time 1 hour 33 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (0-5): 3.5
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
The gay Milo Dean (Bill Hader) knows why he is cast down. His attempt at securing an acting career in Hollywood and finding a life partner have failed. He apparently does not believe in a God in whom he can hope, so the despairing man turns his music player to full volume, climbs in his bathtub, and slits his wrists.
Across the country on that same day in Nyack, NY, the soul of his sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) is also cast down. In her bathroom she also contemplates exiting this life as she gazes at the pills she has poured into her hand. Before she can take them her cell pone rings. The nurse on the other end informs her that her brother Milo has tried to kill himself, but that he is all right now.
Although they have not seen each other for a decade, she drops everything to fly to the bedside of her twin. It is significant, as we shall see, that her ring tone is the Growing Pains theme song “As Long as We Got Each Other.” In their first conversation Milo calls himself “another tragic gay cliché.” Although he is reluctant at first, Milo agrees to go back to New York and bunk with Maggie and her husband for a while. After he meets her husband Lance (Luke Wilson), Maggie tells him what a good person he is, always wanting to please. Milo observes that the man is “a human version of a Labrador retriever.”
Despite the long separation, the two soon regain the closeness enjoyed by twins, as evidenced by the following exchange:
Milo asks, “Have you read Marley And Me”?” Maggie answers, “Yeah. It’s sad.”
“ Why is it sad?” “You don’t know what happens?” “No, that’s why I’m reading it. What?” Realizing she has given too much away, she says, “Nothing.” “Does the dog die at the end?” “ No. I didn’t say that.” Milo sighs as he says, “Maggie, I know the dog dies. Everyone knows the dog dies. It’s the book where the dog dies.” “I see you’re getting your sense of humor back.” “Yeah, they can’t take that away from me.”
We soon see that Maggie has what might be an even darker side than her brother. Lance is eager to have children, but Maggie has been secretly taking birth control pills. Worse, she engages in sex with her scuba diving instructor. This is but the latest of a series of encounters with the string of instructors engaged in teaching her various skills—the innocent Lance had mentioned to Milo that Maggie seems to have a short attention span for her new-found interests and hobbies.
Milo is startled to encounter his high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell) working at a bookstore. When he was 15 Milo had been seduced by Rich, evidently enjoying that relationship because he tries unsuccessfully to restart it. Rich, however, now has a 16 year-old son and intends to build a life with a woman whom he has met. Meanwhile Maggie tries to break off her adulterous affair.
The Skeleton Twins, directed by Craig Johnson (True Adolescents) from a script he wrote with Mark Heyman, affords the two Saturday Night Live grads an opportunity to show they can easily move back and forth between drama and comedy. The scene in which Milo starts lip-synching to Starship’s anthem “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and entices his depressed sister to join him is a wonderful moment. During the duration of this Zorba-like scene we can believe that these two will make it, even if neither seems to have much belief in anything (or One) beyond themselves.
However, this is a screwed-up pair. Their father had been close to them, a shared memory being a Halloween-time gift to them of a small orange skeleton, but he had killed himself. That little skeleton must have been symbolic for them because each bore a small tattooed skeleton on their upper arms. And in the brief scene in which their self-centered mother Judy (Joanna Gleason) visits them, we can imagine one of the origins of their condition. Judy spouts New Age love and concern, but her actions belie her empty words. Maggie cannot forgive her for her failure to come to their wedding because she had been on a spiritual retreat at the time.
Maggie has landed a loving husband, but it seems that she is intentionally ruining her marriage as if she believes she is undeserving of such happiness. What transpires during the concluding scenes, moving from rejection and despair to hope when tragedy is prevented, is supposed to leave us with the feeling that everything will work out for the brother and sister. After all, there is the facilely optimistic Starship song, filled with such lines as “Let the world around us just fall apart/Baby we can make it if we’re heart to heart.” But in a world in which depression can drive even such a talented and beloved man like Robin Williams to end his life, I am not so sure. This is a pair that is fortunate, as the movie maintains in several ways, to have each other, but is that enough? Let’s hope they at least find a skilled and compassionate therapist, if not a faith that will enable them to join the psalmist in lifting up their hearts and minds.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.