Since leaving Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig has demonstrated a willingness to challenge herself, but not always successfully. Though nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Bridesmaids and currently starring in the affecting The Skeleton Twins, she has had her stumbles with Girl Most Likely and Hateship Loveship, projects that sought to broaden her dramatic range. Wiig’s latest vehicle, Welcome to Me, is probably the nerviest film she’s tried yet. Its darkly comic tone fits the out-there spirit of the characters she played to perfection on SNL, but the film’s melancholy mood puts her persona in a new context.
She stars as Alice, a woman living out in Palm Desert with Borderline Personality Disorder. Obsessed with Oprah—she’s taped old episodes and religiously rewatches them, reciting all of Winfrey’s lines verbatim—Alice sees a therapist (Tim Robbins) and babbles a self-help philosophy about believing in oneself. Alice would have continued to live a perfectly regular life coping with her mental issues if not for the fact that she wins the California lottery, netting about $85 million. Flush with cash and confidence, she decides to take that money and self-finance a talk show through a local infomercial company. Called Welcome to Me, the program is her version of Oprah, except with a lot more bizarre cooking segments and angry recreations of past personal traumas.
Directed by Shira Piven and written by Eliot Laurence, Welcome to Me (the film) plays like an elaborate origin story for Wiig’s SNL characters like Target Lady, Gilly or Penelope—all of whom were psychotic individuals whose pleasant surfaces barely hid the darkness underneath. On the long-running sketch show, Wiig made the unnerving funny by playing her roles straight: Her characters were even scarier because they didn’t know how warped they were. In Welcome to Me, Alice possesses the trademark Wiig-ian flat speaking voice and jittery eyes, but Piven has placed the character in a sadder, more realistic environment. Wiig’s mannerisms cause us to laugh, but the bleakness of Alice’s life and the rawness of her talk show’s pain keep lodging those laughs in our throat. The movie won’t let us be comfortable.
However, while the film wields a potentially sharp idea for a satire, Piven and Laurence fumble it. Because Alice’s bosses—including company president James Marsden and show director Joan Cusack—are perfectly content to take her money and make the show, they don’t rein in her many indulgences, resulting in a program that’s a frightening, sometimes comic exploration of her twisted psyche. (The program feels akin to the late-night talk show Rupert Pupkin envisioned in The King of Comedy, except it runs for two hours every day for 100 episodes because no one bothers pulling it off the air.)
What’s strange about Welcome to Me is that the filmmakers don’t seem to understand that, in today’s super-connected Internet world, such a kitschy, disturbing, un-self-conscious show would quickly become a viral sensation. (It’s the sort of under-the-radar oddity my many journalist friends would be clamoring to write about because of its weirdness and ironic brilliance.) Piven and Laurence decide not to go in that direction, though, instead focusing on Alice’s growing mental collapse. Welcome to Me presumably isn’t interested in being a media critique, but what the film does instead isn’t sufficiently compelling: The smallness of Alice’s plight, in contrast to her amazing financial windfall, is never specific or insightful enough.
Wiig has plenty of experience with these sorts of extreme characters, so it’s no surprise that the actress nails the role. Alice is ostensibly part of our species, but her condition keeps her painfully removed from all those around her. She immediately wants to have sex with a coworker (Wes Bentley) who’s nice to her. She doesn’t have conversations as much as she engages in antagonistic exchanges with others, insisting that she wasn’t “lucky” to win the lottery: She believed in herself, you see, and that’s why she won. But Wiig doesn’t play Alice for laughs. Her commitment to the woman’s sense of being wronged, matched by Alice’s narcissistic streak, is so penetrating that it leaves us on edge. Welcome to Me pushes anti-humor to its furthest extreme, until there’s almost no humor at all.
But the movie’s too much of a one-woman show. As confident as Wiig is in this guise, her costars struggle a bit complementing her tone. Bentley is probably the most natural as Alice’s unlikely love interest, but comedy veterans Marsden and Cusack can’t quite get the balance right between reality and surrealism. The world around the talk show simply isn’t well-defined enough to stand in sharp contrast to Alice’s madness. To be sure, Welcome to Me is an unapologetically odd movie. Too bad it’s only odd.
Director: Shira Piven
Writer: Eliot Laurence
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.