Movie Review: Welcome to Me
Kristen Wiig pulls off the impossible as a mentally ill lottery winner in Shira Piven’s dark satire set in the selfie-obsessed post-Oprah age
Welcome to Me
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Lee, Thomas Mann
Directed by: Shira Piven
Running time: 105 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
As a critic looking at any given artifact, there are times when you just can’t help but wonder what neurons were firing at the moment of conception. But watching Kristen Wiig’s Welcome to Me makes you wonder what trauma caused screenwriter Eliot Laurence to put pen to paper.
A challenging piece of comedy that ventures straight into the heart of darkness on the back of a giant swan, Welcome to Me deals with mental illness via the character of Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig).
Alice lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment surrounded by collections of stuff, including stacks and stacks of losing California sweepstakes tickets. As director Shira Piven’s camera scans the landscape, the viewer can tell something is just a little off by the way Alice keeps house: there’s a disjointed sense of order; things are not arranged by purpose, but maybe by colour or shape.
No matter. Piven pushes forward, introducing Alice the way we might meet Mary Tyler Moore, through an opening montage that takes her from the inner sanctum of her home to the outside world – and the host of other humans who reflect Alice back to herself.
We follow Alice to the convenience store, where the clerk has already prepared Alice’s lottery ticket for the daily pickup, and it’s here, in a brief snippet of dialogue with a total stranger, that we realize Alice may be off her proverbial rocker.
“She wanted to know if there was a rape scene in A Tale of Two Cities,” says the stranger, explaining the unheard exchange to his wife, and promptly exiting screen left.
It’s a brilliant beginning because it accomplishes two important things. First, it pulls us into the random thought processor of Alice’s mind, where emotions, relationships and personal boundaries look completely different. And second, by placing Alice in a context that seems familiar, we’re forced to acknowledge our own expectations about others. Alice buys a lottery ticket at the corner store – a completely banal errand – so we think she’s going to conform to some preconceived notion of a female hero: Maybe she’ll be the spunky single gal who makes it on her own. Or she could be like Jennifer Aniston in Cake – pathologically grumpy but for a dramatically good reason.
In short, we think Alice is going to behave like we do – with inhibitory reflexes, a sense of self-awareness, and a rudimentary understanding of social propriety.
But Alice has a personality disorder, so when she ends up winning an $80 million jackpot, she doesn’t do the things most people would do with such a windfall – such as stashing half in the bank and going on an around-the-world vacation.
Alice wants to be like Oprah, her heroine and lifeline, so she buys her own airtime – a personal infomercial she calls ‘Welcome to Me.’
This is where things get awfully funny, and more than a little uncomfortable. Two brothers (Wes Bentley and James Marsden) run the production company, and while they both recognize Alice has some mental health issues, they need her money to stay afloat.
They bite their lips at every turn and obey every bizarre command – from re-enactments of teenage traumas, a scoreboard to keep track of who’s winning the arguments with her mother and an entire segment dedicated to low-carb cooking.
The whole show becomes a sweaty blur of Alice’s rattled thoughts, all of which revolve around her. But while Welcome to Me becomes a vivid illustration of everything from narcissistic personality disorder to manic-depression, in our current post-Kardashian reality, it almost looks “normal.”
When the show develops a following, fans and an income-yielding time slot, we can see why: It’s a human car crash, and we get to watch Alice launch herself through the windshield of her own life in every episode.
It’s sick, but we don’t know how sick until we feel the contrast through the character of Alice’s best friend, Gina Selway (Linda Cardellini). In just a few expert strokes of character interaction, the two gifted actors show us the bare truth of human behaviour, and the bottom line is: We can be a selfish bunch.
Alice’s sickness manifests in her inability to consider others, which makes her the ideal mascot of the reality TV era, self-absorbed pop culture and the entire ‘self-help’ industry that condenses banal affirmations into algae-laden protein shakes and waxy pastes of platitudes.
Even her name is symbolically apt: Alice, the little girl who went through the looking glass, and Klieg, the name of the biggest lights on a Hollywood set – the kind you generally see at red carpets and opening night galas, pouring huge white beams into the sky.
The fact that this Alice Klieg is suffering from mental illness must be seen as Eliot Laurence’s commentary on what we’ve become in the post-Oprah age of unbridled selfies and financially empowered narcissism.
It’s sharp, and it’s biting, and sometimes, it hits the nail of satire just right and makes you laugh. But mostly, it’s disturbing – as it should be. This is a movie about a woman who looks to the outside world for affirmation — the surefire recipe for tragedy. Yet, thanks to the rock solid cast — that also includes Wes Bentley, Joan Cusack and a nice comeback turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh — this movie pulls off a miracle and leaves us strangely satisfied, even happy.
A truly brave movie that redefines the very boundaries of American cinema in its willingness to reflect some ugly truths, Welcome to Me operates so far outside the realm of Hollywood moviemaking, it feels ‘foreign’ – even without subtitles.