Welcome to Me Shira Piven
Published May 21, 2015On paper, the basic premise of Shira Piven's oddball comedy, Welcome to Me, sounds like the sort of high concept conceit that's usually found in Adam Sandler fare. Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig), a medicated Oprah fanatic with Borderline Personality Disorder, wins $86-million in the lottery and buys 100 episodes of her own talk show (of sorts) with a struggling local television station. Her peculiar personality — particularly after giving up her meds — combined with the show's set up — idiosyncratic emotional exhibitionism — makes for a more thematically focused and consistent variation on UHF.
But Piven isn't quite as keen on milking the mentally ill for a laugh as a more conventional comedy might be. Welcome to Me is dark and tonally abstract. It's downright hilarious at times and exceedingly discomforting at others. It's conscious of the reality surrounding Alice's misguided inner-universe and isn't interested in placating the audience by suggesting that a sick woman's narcissistic experiment in emotional transparency isn't riddled with a litany of social, ethical and legal complications. In a way, Welcome is like a satire of the sort of hyper-realized, manic comedy that former SNL cast members usually tackle.
What does it mean to make a comedy about indulging the whims of a mentally ill woman without ignoring the darker side? Well, most importantly, the funny is there. Wiig is an exceptional comic actor; she embodies slightly askew awkwardness with natural aplomb. More importantly, she sells the manic nature of Klieg's personality: she breaks down into hysterics, remains blissfully self-involved despite obvious contrary social cues and reacts to situations only as they appear. In moments like when Klieg's show is first aired and she takes five minutes to eat a piece of meatloaf on air in complete silence and shares an anecdote about finding a pubic hair in the shape of a question mark on her pillow, Welcome to Me is consistently laugh-out-loud funny.
Where things get murky is in the blending of other tonal and thematic aspects. Klieg's unbalanced friendship with gym owner Gina (Linda Cardellini) is well developed, but the sort of broad way that Rich Ruskin (James Marsden), the television station owner, is developed is akin to sitcom television. There are efforts to build on this, such as making production manager Deb Moseley (Jennifer Jason Leigh) respond with some reality to the situation, commenting on the ethically questionable nature of taking such a journey and responding to Alice with a sober disposition: "You ate a piece of hamburger and then cried." But this blend between reality and comic delusion doesn't quite work, and since the film doesn't stray away from the less amusing aspects of borderline personality, featuring scenes of Wiig walking fully nude through a casino during a low, the extreme shifts in tone complicate this even further.
Still, when this dark social satire works, it really works. Attention to detail, such as the media student that assumes the show is a self-aware, brilliant social commentary, and the destructive relationship Klieg projects onto her therapist (Tim Robbins) both suggest that a lot of thought went into just what such a person and such a situation might mean on a bigger scale. Still, someone like Miguel Arteta might have taken this from great to exceptional. Unlike Piven, who is inexperienced as a director and doesn't have the best handle on a complex tone, Arteta gets the juxtaposition of wide-eyed outsiders with sober realists and maintains grounded view of askew situations.
Fortunately, Wiig is a triumph here. She is as hilarious as she is frustrating and devastating to watch, effectively balancing the demands of making these situations funny without denigrating or mocking the illness she's saddled with. It's a brave performance that isn't afraid of being brutal and ugly, which is what ultimately gives Welcome to Me a lasting effect.