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Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader elevate the indie clichés of The Skeleton Twins

There’s one truly memorable scene in The Skeleton Twins, and it’s the one that draws most clearly on the comedic experience of its stars, a pair of former Saturday Night Live castmates moonlighting as dramatic actors. In an attempt to lighten the mood after an argument, Milo (Bill Hader) begins performing an exquisite lip-sync rendition of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Deeply peeved with her estranged brother, who blew off a job interview she secured for him, Maggie (Kristen Wiig) resists his charm as long as she can. But as the song picks up steam, the tension cools, and suddenly she’s mouthing her portion of the lyrics and throwing herself into this joyfully dorky duet. The moment, easily the movie’s funniest, perfectly captures the seesaw nature of sibling relationships—the way an invitation to play can instantly resolve a quarrel. It also mirrors how this seriocomic festival favorite deflects criticism, its leads working hard to win folks over. Like Maggie, audiences may be powerless to resist.

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To fall for a compendium of indie-movie clichés like The Skeleton Twins requires a kind of selective appreciation, the ability to admire sterling performances in a less-than-sterling context. The film’s first glaring contrivance arrives immediately, with the near-suicide of both of its protagonists, on the same day, hundreds of miles away from each other. Only Milo goes through with the attempt; Maggie’s is interrupted by the telephone, as someone calls to share the news of her brother’s hospitalization. Flying to Los Angeles to mend broken ties, she talks her depressed brother into coming to New York to lay low with her and her sweet jock of a husband, Lance (Luke Wilson, truly adorable as a gentle knucklehead). But ending their decade-long silent treatment doesn’t put an end to their respective misery; the twins quickly embark on parallel, equally self-destructive paths—Milo rekindling an unhealthy relationship with an ex (Ty Burrell), Maggie cheating on her hubby with her swim instructor (Boyd Holbrook).

What drove a wedge between these two in the first place? The Skeleton Twins pivots around the mystery of its characters’ bad blood, eventually offering a halfway-satisfying explanation. But while Milo and Maggie share a messy past, their mutual mid-life crisis is explored in an overly tidy manner, with the siblings basically experiencing each individual high and low at the same time. (Twins are emotionally linked or something, right?) And director Craig Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay, handles the sometimes-heavy material—Attempted suicide! Adultery! Statutory rape!—with an even heavier hand. What saves the movie is its actors: Exploiting audience’s memories of their previous collaborations, Hader and Wiig really do seem related. And both actors handle the balance between drama and comedy with aplomb. Whenever they’re on-screen together, huffing gas in a dentist’s office or bickering in the streets, The Skeleton Twins comes to life. If only they had a more distinctive, less programmatic platform for their chemistry.

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