'Welcome to Me'
Kristin Wiig continues to avoid conventional comedy stardom following the massive success of ‘Bridesmaids’ with yet another oddball indie project, and this one is easily her best yet. Produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s dependably demented Gary Sanchez Productions, ‘Welcome to Me’ is the type of twisted comedy that could only exist thanks to such major talents willing it into existence. The chances of theatrical success are slim, but cult infamy is assured.
Wiig stars as Alice Klieg, a particularly lost and disturbed young woman. She’s been diagnosed by her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins, wallowing in loving liberal self-parody) as having a borderline personality disorder, but it’s safe to say that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She hasn’t turned her TV off in a decade and lives surrounded by VHS tapes of Oprah that she mouths along to when she isn’t out buying O Magazine or harassing strangers in the street with troubling questions. She has only a single friend (Linda Cardellini), a pair of disinterested parents and a gay ex-husband (Alan Tudyk) as a support system and they offer very little help.
Alice’s life changes radically when she wins an $80 million lotto jackpot. Rather than treating herself to a vacation or a mansion, she convinces a struggling infomercial company to give her a TV show. Titled ‘Welcome to Me’, Alice arrives on stage in a swan, imparts life lessons (like replacing antipsychotic medication with a high protein diet), and stages reenactments of low moments in her life where she often screams at the actors for not playing her properly. It’s essentially an extended televised meltdown that proves to be surprisingly successful.
First time screenwriter Eliot Laurence’s bitter and uncompromising script is laced with barbs against the self-esteem movement and narcissistic talk show culture. His targets are strong and his satirical attacks are on-point. Alice represents a deeply unhealthy reflection of cozy entertainment that’s been accepted for too long, and some of the biggest laughs carry a hefty weight of relief for those who have long despised such things. Yet despite all the wild and surreal comedic moments, the movie isn’t merely an assault on daytime TV fantasies. Alice is far too complicated a character for that. While Wiig leaps on a few big goofy sequences here, her performance is surprisingly grounded and real. We might be invited to laugh at the lost woman’s twisted take on Oprah-style programming, but the filmmakers never forget that their protagonist is a genuinely damaged character.
As the movie wears on, the laughs start to hurt. The audience is invited not just to question the nasty subtext of the fictional viewers ironically appreciating Alice’s show, but also whether or not they should be laughing at the movie. Director Shira Piven might stage some talk show sequences like nightmare comedy Tim & Eric routines, but she always sticks around with Alice long enough to see the tragedy of the situation. The closest point of comparison for the movie is likely Martin Scorsese’s discomfort comedy masterpiece ‘The King of Comedy‘. Like Rupert Pupkin, Alice is a character who embodies the complete disconnect from reality required to pursue a career in showbiz, pushed to a psychotic extreme.
What makes ‘Welcome to Me’ a contemporary take on those themes is the fact that the type of fame Alice chases doesn’t even require the drive and gruntwork of Pupkin’s cornball comedy routines. She’s chasing a specific brand of light entertainment that values narcissism over talent, and the fact that she’s content with the ironic fame she achieves is even more troubling. ‘The King of Comedy’ might have seemed like an outlandish take on America’s obsession with fame in the 1980s, but ‘Welcome to Me’ shows how far the bar has dropped since then, and the results are pretty horrifying.
Of course, as clever, pointed, and impressive as ‘Welcome to Me’ is, it’s not a perfect movie. Alice is such a fascinating character and Wiig’s performance is so hilarious that it completely dominates the movie to its detriment. All of the supporting characters who appear in the film are really just there to serve Alice and the plot with very little life of their own beyond punchlines. Piven prevents this from becoming a major issue by filling those small roles with major talents like Cardellini, Robbins, Tudyk, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wes Bentley and James Marsden – all of whom are able to elevate their thin roles just enough to have at least 2.5 dimensions. That certainly helps, but given how psychologically complex the protagonist is, the limitations of every other character are impossible to ignore.
Likewise, the final scenes wrap up a messy story a little too neatly, even if the final image adds a troubling endnote. Yet even if ‘Welcome to Me’ isn’t perfect, the central character is so brilliantly conceived and timely that all the sideline problems tend to vanish from memory fairly quickly. This is one of the darkest and smartest American comedies to emerge in quite some time. Even if that makes it too uncommercial to get the attention it deserves while playing theaters, the flick is too good to disappear entirely. All of the bitter little weirdos this movie is designed for will discover and fall in love with ‘Welcome to Me’ eventually, so do what you can to get there first.