By Kyle G. King. Social media has given a platform for marginalized voices to not only be heard, but to powerfully influence those who may not respectfully understand their personal struggles. In providing a voice for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, it’s in the best interests of movie studios and their filmmakers to comb through their own material with more vigilance than ever before, or risk missteps that can saddle their films with backlashes, boycotts, or even death threats (just ask Joss Whedon).
The paranoia that comes with potentially offending audiences challenges filmmakers to devise non-tokenized characters with complex personalities and dimensions beyond a traditional simplicity. Characters stricken with a mental illness are an especially delicate perspective for a film to speak for (one that often lands in the territory between parody and puerility), and while mental illness is certainly never a laughing matter, that is not to say a person suffering from mental illness lives a life devoid of all humor. This enlightened approach walks a thin line in Kristen Wiig’s latest film Welcome To Me, a dark comedy from actor-director Shira Piven.
Living in the Simi Valley of southern California, Alice Klieg (Wiig) is a woman of great ambition and determination, due in large part to her supreme admiration of the great and powerful Oprah Winfrey. While Alice suffers from borderline personality disorder, she doesn’t seem to regard her condition as limiting her lifestyle so much as it simply sets systematic parameters for her to go about her day. But once Alice decides to go off her prescribed medications in lieu of a high protein diet, things start to change dramatically and “a new era of Alice” provides her with an eighty-six million dollar jackpot that she uses to fund her dream of hosting her own talk show. But current events and celebrity guests aren’t what interests Alice as a talk show host; the only topic she is interested in exploring on her public access show is herself. Thus, with a fifteen million dollar personal check, “Welcome To Me” (as her talk show is also titled) is up and rolling.
As facile as this premise could easily be, Wiig, Piven, and screenwriter Eliot Laurence (of Big Gay Sketch Show fame) respectfully never aim the comedy directly towards Alice. Alice is built as a largely humorless and stoic personality, and the comedy boils gently and awkwardly around her. She fails to fit into most social encounters, but the film doesn’t depict her as a superficial anomaly of zaniness, but as a incisive tool for societal commentary. When reminded not to eat during her therapy sessions with her doctor (played by Tim Robbins), Alice challenges such a vain request with confusion, “It’s a banana. It’s in its own container.” Her character is able to challenge systems that fail to understand her and her bold declaration of her own agency (as society often does for those suffering with mental–rather than physical–ailments).
What empowers Alice’s character beyond anything else is the fact that she has nigh-limitless resources through her lottery winnings. After shirking her medications, she can now seek her own brand of self-treatment with complete control. Laurence ingeniously sanctions a supreme agency for Alice and throws her power at the judgement of the public as a host of her own talk show. As her growing audience is unsure whether to digest the material as a pratfall of amusing programming or a medium for inspired performance art, the show begins to thematically expand and hit more and more nerves in Alice’s exposed psyche. Her condition spontaneously wavers between a flawless confidence and a raw vulnerability, all of which galvanize her network ratings to reach higher and higher.
While Priven and Wiig both handle the film’s complex themes from Lawrence’s intelligent script, the film’s tone never truly materializes. There’s a scent of SNL to a lot of its comedic beats, and it’s difficult to not think of I Heart Huckabees or Little Miss Sunshine during the more dramatic scenes. But that’s not to say it doesn’t flourish too (as smartly original a character as Alice Krieg is), but the spark of innovation simply never comes forward.
Linda Cardellini provides a small but rich performance as Alice’s only friend Gina, who is along for the psycho-emotional ride whether she likes it or not. Along with dependably authentic performances from Wes Bentley (as the show’s producer and Alice’s love interest), as well as Joan Cusack (as the shows director, who’s compassion wavers between quitting her job and supporting Alice’s vision). James Marsden and Jennifer Jason Leigh both participate, but with slightly squandered roles as producers that never take full advantage of their respective talents. The film is without a doubt Wiig’s show, and while Welcome To Me doesn’t cut a path that’s entirely its own, it is extremely refreshing to see a movie take respectful steps towards crafting intelligent perspectives on the complex issue of mental illness.