'Welcome to Me': Toronto Review
A mentally ill lottery winner hopes to make herself the next Oprah
TORONTO — In her years on Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig invented some characters whose social awkwardness stretched beyond the point of uncomfortable comedy; as they returned week after week, it could feel like they were daring you not to change the channel. In Shira Piven's Welcome to Me, Wiig and writer Eliot Laurence offer a woman who can't even imagine you wouldn't want to watch — the creator of a bizarre, self-obsessed TV show that spills her troubled psyche out for all to see. Funny, dark, and riding a very fine line in its depiction of mental illness, it may be the best thing we could hope would emerge from the side of Wiig that gave us Gilly. Marketers would be wise not to tie it to the coattails of Bridesmaids, which would be like pitching The King of Comedy to Nutty Professor fans. But this comedy succeeds on its own strange terms, and is not too edgy to hope for modest mainstream success.
Wiig's Alice Klieg was diagnosed as a youth as a manic-depressive. While the diagnosis changed over the decades (her shrink, played by Tim Robbins, currently calls it Borderline Personality Disorder), Alice didn't: Shelves of VHS tapes and a collection of ceramic swans attest to a lifelong fixation on a shallow sort of self-examination, the kind of hear-my-voice empowerment daytime TV was built on. When she wins an $86 million lottery, she seems less excited about the money than about the chance to read "a prepared statement" about the story of her life to news cameras.
When the news crews cut her off, Alice finds another outlet: A failing infomercial-production company that can't afford to turn down the $15 million check she writes to produce her own show. Though she idolizes Oprah, Alice has not understood that the talk-show host didn't actually believe that each member of her audience was the most fascinating creature ever created. She envisions a two-hour talk show about nothing but her — her passionate grudges, her high-protein diet, her strategies to match colors to her changing moods.
The company's decision-maker (James Marsden) insists on saying yes to everything so long as the checks clear, but other members of the team have qualms. His brother and partner Gabe (Wes Bentley), who until recently was shilling smoothie powder in a safari outfit, feels she's humiliating herself; but he's a sex addict whose judgment is compromised by Alice's after-hours availability. Most entertaining is the show's director Dawn (Joan Cusack), who is disgusted by the whole thing but plays along with it-is-what-it-is resignation.
The show, which gets upgraded production values as soon as Alice sees the first episodes onscreen and writes another check, is a trainwrecky work of outsider art, a combination of cable-access ineptitude and idiot-savant performance art. Of course, Alice attracts an admirer or two ready to write term papers about her similarities to Cindy Sherman; but Laurence stops short of offering the expected montage in which she becomes a real pop-culture phenomenon. It suffices for the film's purposes that she has just enough success to believe the kind of positive-visualization malarkey TV has taught her. ("It's not about luck!" she says of her lottery windfall.)
The film is in no rush to ask whether Alice's tsunami of ego is eccentricity we can enjoy or a serious illness that merits our concern. Dr. Moffet regularly urges her to get back on her medication, but casting Robbins in the part is like a signal that we shouldn't take his lefty nanny-state advice too seriously. More persuasive in the film's moral universe is the extent to which Alice neglects her best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini), something no self-respecting Oprah disciple would do. Realizing what she has done, Alice sinks into a despair that is brief but just ugly enough to matter. (And is accompanied by a piercing song by the Mountain Goats, a nice touch that would be even nicer if it were the original instead of a cover version.)
The filmmakers quickly step back from the abyss, envisioning a grand gesture modeled on another familiar TV idiom, the charity-benefit telethon. This solution might feel cheap, if it weren't clearly how Alice, so convinced that every bit of her biography has broad cultural significance, would address this problem given the opportunity.
Production Companies: Bron Studios, Gary Sanchez Productions
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Mann, James Marsden, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk
Director: Shira Piven
Screenwriter: Eliot Laurence
Producers: Jessica Elbaum, Kristen Wiig, Aaron L. Gilbert, Marina Grasic, Will Ferrell, Adam Mckay
Executive producers: Keith Kjarval, Jeff Rice, Brad Grenier, Robyn Wholey, Burton Richie, John Raymonds
Director of photography: Eric Edwards
Production designer: Clayton Hartley
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Editors: Josh Salzberg, Kevin Tent
Music: David Robbins
Sales: WME, UTA
Rated R, 86 minutes