During her time on Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig demonstrated a knack for creating memorably strange characters. You may find Gilly, Penelope and Dooneese Maharelle either aggressively annoying or riotously entertaining depending on your comedic preferences/mood, but surely we can agree that those characters (and quite a few others Wiig played) are spectacularly weird. In each case, the actual joke being told – Gilly is misbehaving, Penelope feels a compulsion to one-up everyone, Dooneese has tiny arms and a weird voice – is pretty simple, but what makes the sketches so bizarrely compelling is Wiig's totally committed performance. She finds that one note the sketch is going for and zeroes in on it with almost absurdly focused precision. The results are alternately hilarious and obnoxious, but it's awfully hard to stop watching.
Shira Piven's Welcome to Me takes Wiig's unusual sketch comedy talents and places them within the context of mental illness. Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a middle-aged woman suffering from borderline personality disorder and living on disability benefits. She spends her days at home, eating yogurt and watching television. Once a week, she'll attend a mandatory session with her therapist (Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption) and she occasionally receives visits from her loyal friend Gina (Linda Cardinelli, Avengers: Age of Ultron), but otherwise she has no social life to speak of. It's just infomercials, yogurt, lottery tickets and talk shows, day after day after day after day. Then Alice wins $86 million dollars, and her whole life changes.
It doesn't take long for Alice to figure out what she wants to do with her newfound wealth. She visits a local TV production studio and expresses an interest in creating her own program. While the studio specializes in 15-to-30-minute infomercials, Alice wants them to help her produce a two-hour weekly talk show. The studio owner (James Marsden, X-Men) tells her that such a show will cost $150,000 an episode. Without batting an eye, Alice writes a check for $15 million and begins her new career as a television personality.
If you think you have a pretty good idea of where this is going, think again. Though Welcome to Me seems to be laying the groundwork for a TV-themed satire in the vein of Network or Being There (perhaps a smarmy story about the American public's willingness to turn a mentally ill person into a beloved celebrity), it's actually far more character-driven and far less concept-driven than it first appears. Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurence aren't interested in the public's reaction to Alice so much as in Alice's reaction to her new situation. The result is a fascinating (if slightly aimless) cringe comedy and a surprisingly fresh take on mental illness.
To say that Alice's show is bizarre is an understatement. Though Alice cites Oprah Winfrey as her role model, the show typically feels much closer to something like Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! than to a conventional daytime talk show. Alice cooks a meatloaf cake and eats an entire slice in real time while the audience watches in silence. She stages recreations of uncomfortable moments from her past, and details her own personal habits with startling frankness (“I've been using masturbation as a sedative since 1991,” begins a typical monologue). It's unlike anything else on TV, and though the show doesn't become an overnight sensation, she builds an audience. People find this strange woman intriguing. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for Alice to start making a series of costly, self-destructive mistakes.
While Welcome to Me is consistently absorbing as a character study and never less than intriguing in general, the film's talented supported cast is mostly wasted on a series of dull parts and throwaway subplots. There's a romance of sorts with one of the studio's co-founders (a perpetually perplexed Wes Bentley, American Beauty), an uncomfortably odd encounter with a college newspaper reporter (Thomas Mann, Project X), Alice's hot-and-cold relationship with her therapist, etc. All of this material serves a purpose – it gives us a better understanding of who Alice is – but the other players consistently feel short-changed. If we're being generous, perhaps we can say that this is merely a way in which the film deliberately mirrors Alice's blindly self-centered personality (for a person obsessed with detailing every nuance of every bad thing she's ever experienced, Alice seems almost completely oblivious to the problems of others – including Gina, her only real friend). Still, it seems a shame to waste fine actors like Alan Tudyk (Firefly), Joan Cusack (Grosse Point Blank) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hudsucker Proxy) on small, thankless parts.
I'm not sure that I entirely buy the journey Welcome to Me takes (the closing scenes feel a little too conventionally pleasant for a movie so willing to embrace messiness and discomfort), but it's admittedly refreshing to see a movie about mental illness that's A) willing to find squirm-inducing laughs in the material and B) unwilling to use a serious condition as a route to cheap pathos or faux gravitas. It also gives Wiig a part that almost no one else could have played, and employs the stranger parts of her skill set in a fascinatingly unexpected manner. The movie sees Alice for who she is without judgment, and forces us to confront the totality of her sad, funny, messy, irritating, damaged personality without ever reducing it to something comforting or simple. Like Alice's television show, the movie is a failure in a conventional sense but an unusual success in areas where others often struggle.
Welcome to Me
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 87 minutes
Release Year: 2015