Working back through a raft of bad-seed twins to 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the sibling drama has, with few exceptions, been ignored or pathologized to death in movies. I see why: no prospects for sex, unless we're talking incest. Yet that relationship, with all its potent friction of solidarity and competition, comes stuffed with dramatic potential that the fairly new director Craig Johnson means to mine in The Skeleton Twins, an intermittently absorbing dramedy about a brother and sister who have reached adulthood in years, if not in maturity.
Johnson has going for him two fairly bankable leads with proven chemistry going in — which is more than their benighted characters can claim. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play Maggie and Milo, who as kids stood shoulder to shoulder against an unfavorable domestic climate (in a five-minute appearance, Joanna Gleason is so good that she almost convinces us that the siblings' mother is not a new age cliche). When we meet them trembling on the cusp of middle age, brother and sister are 10 years estranged and floundering. Failure to thrive doesn't begin to cover it.
That both attempt suicide in the first 10 minutes is only the movie's first contrivance. Maggie, at least, has gathered the trappings of an adult life: She has a job and a loving husband, Lance (a mercifully restrained Luke Wilson), and they're trying for a baby, she tells her gay brother. Milo, on the other hand, is a walking disaster — he's an aspiring actor clinging to the Hollywood fringe — whom Hader plays as a tamped-down, unhappy version of his famous Stefon on Saturday Night Live. He's pretty good, but Stefon hovers, stealing thunder.
Milo moves in with Maggie; self-defeating misbehavior multiplies; secrets fly out of the family closet. Worse yet, Milo refreshes a pivotal past encounter with a former teacher (Modern Family's Ty Burrell) who, then and now, should know better. Maggie takes an unauthorized marital break with her handsome upholstered scuba-diving instructor (Boyd Holbrook); drowning metaphors abound.
There are some nicely observed and sharply written moments, especially when Wiig and Hader dial down the showy eccentricity and allow Milo and Maggie to come clean about where it all went wrong, separately and together. In a quietly moving monologue, Milo explains what it's like to coast for years on your specialness, only to discover that your dull classmates from high school have moved past you into lives of substance.
At its best, The Skeleton Twins exudes the vague unease of two putative grown-ups trying to stifle their awareness that the lives they've chosen neither fit nor suit them. As diligent disciples of indie darlings Noah Baumbach and Mark Duplass (the latter is an executive producer on The Skeleton Twins) Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman mistrust the inspirational-homily movie in which all parties grow up and take their assigned slots in society.
Fair enough, but the one person for whom I felt a growing affection was Wilson's Lance. That he chomps loudly on his cereal and scarfs down pizza pockets by the dozen makes him no more than a soft target for the arty filmmaker. Should it also count for something that he loves Maggie enough to accept both her and Milo as they are? Should it count for more that he knows when he's beaten and acts accordingly, with dignity?
Even once their cards are laid on the table in the obligatory honest heart-to-heart, Maggie and Milo's redemption never really persuaded me. I get it — they get each other as no one else can, and Wiig and Hader's ability to bring out the silliness in one another is irresistible. But I couldn't help seeing these two 30 years on, touching up one another's Halloween mascara and playing What Not to Wear in a house that's part Miss Havisham, part Grey Gardens.