Kristen Wiig is a master of uncomfortable comedy. The actress’s SNL characters pushed past the boundaries of social awkwardness, from career one-upper Penelope to mischievous weirdo Gilly, and her theatrical roles have found her tackling topics most people find inherently unfunny, from mental breakdowns (Girl Most Likely) to suicide (The Skeleton Twins), in films almost too dark to even qualify as dramedies. Wiig’s latest, Welcome to Me, also defies categorization.
An alternately sobering and amusing depiction of mental illness, it’s an entire film about a person you wouldn’t want to spend more than a minute alone in a room with. Alice Klieg (Wiig) is a lonely woman suffering from dissociative personality disorder who passes most days watching Oprah and a VHS collection of infomercials. She’s utterly mesmerized by the idea that anyone can succeed in life, provided they believe in themselves whole-heartedly, so much so that she plays an Oprah clip, where the talk-show host preaches about endless opportunity to her audience on a seemingly daily basis. When Alice wins an $86 million jackpot, she senses a chance to reinvent herself.
Quitting her meds and moving into a casino suite, Alice looks to a brighter future, while her friends, including gay ex-husband (Alan Tudyk) and heart-of-gold BFF (Linda Cardellini), watch with the hopeful anxiety of parents taking their kid out for their first bike ride without training wheels. Their concern is warranted. Alice buys herself a talk-show, which will center on everything Alice, including “my hopes, my dreams, what I like to eat, who I think is a cunt,” etc. The network chief (James Marsden) signs off despite realizing just how unstable Alice is, if just to keep his struggling station afloat a while longer.
With Alice signing all the checks, her show, titled “Welcome to Me, with Alice Klieg,” becomes a reality. Behind the cameras, network employees (including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Joan Cusack) watch through their fingers as their new star devotes her first program to making a meatloaf cake then slowly eating it in complete silence. By most measures, the show is a trainwreck – but like the most spectacular trainwrecks, no one can look away or stop rolling the cameras.
Episode by episode, Alice makes good on her mission statement, screaming down a poor actress who’s playing a childhood enemy and eagerly discussing her longtime use of masturbation as a sedative. As the show becomes something of a word-of-mouth phenomenon, she’s further emboldened, hauling in dogs to neuter on-air and muddying waters at the network even further by beginning to hook up with Gabe (Wes Bentley), the chief’s sensitive brother.
Films about mental illness often make the assumption that their protagonists need and deserve our sympathy, but Welcome to Me smartly avoids that trope. Screenwriter Eliot Laurence and director Shira Piven treat Alice alternately as an ailing woman, an aggressor, a cartoonish villain and a tragicomic hero, but never as a done-in victim. She’s terrible to Gabe and to Cardellini’s best friend, rarely returning either of their kindness with anything more than additional pleas for help. And there doesn’t appear to be a second of Alice’s day that isn’t devoted to thinking about herself. When she’s speaking on her show, though, the unexpected eloquence with which she works through her traumas suggests that she genuinely believes she can help people, and that drive points to a capacity for goodness that Alice is on the cusp of noticing.
Trying to explain a character like Alice is tricky. She’s like one of Wiig’s SNL sketch characters but amplified and scrutinized, so that it’s much easier to see the layers of hurt behind the theatrical inanity. As infuriating as Alice is, the unrelenting narcissism is a result of invisible wounds that go deep and don’t heal. Wiig’s nuanced portrayal of her is the movie, and it’s to the actress’s credit that Alice is never less than eminently watchable. Welcome to Me isn’t a quote-unquote comedy, but Wiig is a strong-enough performer to draw laughs, especially of the open-mouthed, bowled-over variety, out of dark places. Without an actress as committed to serving the oddballs as her, the film would fall apart.
It’s hard not to chuckle when Alice comes out in a swan boat for her first show, robotically waving her arms. But crucially, we’re also laughing at the saps on the other side of the lens. At its best, Welcome to Me is a biting indictment of modern celebrity in a time when everyone is their own brand and audiences prefer their goods damaged. It’s easy to wish that the film followed through on that cultural skewering with a little more gusto – at just 87 minutes, Welcome to Me feels like an introduction that takes far too long in getting to its main event. Alice’s rise to fame feels so plausible that the laughs catch in your throat, but the film is so transfixed on watching Alice spiral that it too seldom observes how her audiences are reacting to the startling, incongruous insights her show provides.
Somewhere around the hour mark, Welcome to Me seems to forget where it’s going and forge ahead into a pat, predictable conclusion. There’s little by way of narrative momentum, and beyond the set-up, the film doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting. That feels like a missed opportunity. Especially given that we leave knowing just as little about Alice’s condition as we did before we sat down, and that Piven and Laurence aren’t interested in curing her so much as presenting her as she is. The happy ending is also an unconvincing one, and the film as a whole really suffers for coming up essentially empty. Still, Wiig makes for unhinged, entertaining company along the way.
Kristen Wiig dazzles in what may be her best performance to date - and what is certainly her trickiest - but the actress is diminished by how unexpectedly rudderless the film feels.