The best humor catches us off-guard, leaving us a little confused and disconcerted. Generating those kind of laughs is serious business, and that is what so admirable about the agile dark comedy Welcome to Me. Kristen Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a woman who tells us she is suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. Alice is needy, insecure, and angry at everything. She wins 86 million dollars in the lottery. The cash gives her the opportunity to realize her greatest dream — to create her own TV show, inspired by her hero, Oprah.
This is not a glamorous role and Wiig never resorts to shtick or mugging. And it is her committed performance, along with director Shira Piven’s skill at comic timing, that grounds the film’s absurd premise. Peter Sellers gave a similar eerily neutral performance as Chauncey Gardiner in Hal Ashby’s Being There. Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurence want to generate sharp satiric comedy out of discomfort and pain, and they manage to tread a fine line between broad farce and sympathetic characterizations. Is such a story really that implausible? My mind flashes back to such John Waters ‘stars’ as the wonderful Edith Massey or William Hung the American Idol star for a day. Does anyone remember the 1950’s show Queen for a Day? That popular quiz show awarded prizes to the housewife who told the saddest story of financial and personal distress. (The decision was based on an audience-o-meter that measured the decibel level of the applause for the most pathetic saga!) Call it TV’s version of bleeding heart rubbernecking Alice wins the lottery and with her millions approaches two brothers, Gabe and Rich, who have been losing money on TV hawking questionable health products. Gabe (Wes Bentley), the host, and co-producer Rich (James Marsden) question her premise, but she writes a check and the game is on. The real laughs come from the reactions of the staff, which include the show’s designer Deb (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and director Dawn (Joan Cusack). The eye-rolling expressions of disbelief and incredulity from those with the unenviable task of making Alice’s fantasy into a reality are skillfully juxtaposed with the woman’s resolute conviction about her ideas for the show. Rather than smirking, Wiig’s Alice often looks like she is about to weep out of excess integrity. Leigh’s Deb remains memorably exasperated and Cusack, who can go over the top, keeps the director’s desperation low key.
Alice: “I want a talk show with me as the host.”
Rich: “Well, it wouldn’t be our first foray into vanity programming.”
Deb: “You want to talk about current events?”
Deb: “A show with guts. You do interviews.”
Gabe: “Well, what kind of stuff do you want to talk about?”
Deb: “I’m still not getting what the show’s about”
Rich: “Alice. Directing, shooting , editing, sets, hair, costume design . . . “
Alice: “Yeah. I want all that.”
Rich: “All these things add to make creating your own show – very expensive.”
Dawn: “Are we talking about a half hour or, . . . “
Alice: “Two hours.”
She writes an 8 million check for all the productions. The room is silent.
Alice: “Oh, and I want to come in on a swan boat.”
Her live show features everything from eccentric recipes to re-enacted scenes from her own life starring actors whom she directs (or bosses around) as they perform. Alice’s show is grotesquely funny and cringe-worthy, but it is plausible as fringe entertainment, particularly when one scans the current TV landscape of confessional talk shows, shopping channels, self-help infomercials, and cheesy quiz shows, as well as the oddball productions available on cable access. The program, which Alice calls ‘Welcome to Me,’ grows marginally more popular. But her confessional comedy soon evolves from the freakishly awkward to the cruel. When Alice takes advantage and exploits her therapist (Tim Robbins) and best friend (Linda Cardellini) in her TV show, the line between public and private is crossed. Hard lessons will be learned, but somehow we keep rooting for Alice.
Is the film exploiting mental illness for laughs or is it simply an exaggeration of a universal yen for a mass affirmation of ourselves? Are we a culture of narcissists? The inescapable parade of hosts and pseudo celebrities who, through luck or ambition, offer entertaining advice and propaganda on every aspect of our lives is overwhelming. Alice has “had the TV on for eleven years.” It’s her solace, her church, the thing that tells her she is worthy. Oprah is her God. With 86 million dollars why should she not reverse the dynamic and put herself forward for public consumption? Elia Kazan directed a scathing attack on television’s corrupting influence in his 1957 satire Face in the Crowd, which features a chilling performance by Andy Griffith as a country singer driven mad by the power of his celebrity. Welcome to Me reverses the dynamic. We’re all stars now (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) and crowd-sourced popularity begins to feel as real as recognition comes. That is as deranged an illusion as imagining that Oprah, or Ellen, or Dr. Phil have the time or inclination to give one hoot about your life. Alice stands for the wounded “us.” And I cared about her despite some broad comic moments. At times, Wiig’s Alice recalls Louise Lasser’s performance as a narcotized housewife in the brilliant late ’70s soap opera/farce Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I cared about her, too.