Monday, May 11, 2015

Welcome To Me (**1/2)

Directed by Shira Piven


Kristen Wiig's post-Saturday Night Live career has been exciting and unforeseen. She could've taken a path similar to her Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy, accepting any and all major studio offers for broad, belligerent comedies made for mass box office appeal. Wiig has taken a different route, choosing roles that intentionally test her abilities as an actress and expand the limits of her comedic performance. Wiig is one of the funniest people on the planet, but her film roles often explore the well-worn saying of comedy stemming from inner pain. She doesn't seem committed to being a strong film actress as much as she seems interested in visualizing the way comedy is often conceived - which isn't always funny. Last year's The Skeleton Twins was the closest Wiig has come to a dramatic role, where she plays a chronically adulterous wife. There were times when she seemed more willing to make her character less sympathetic than the film itself was. There's a similar commitment to character in Welcome To Me - her latest film - an indie that is both a hysterical comedy about viral trend culture, as well as a tragic story about mental illness.

Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a lonely, television-obsessed woman with borderline personality disorder who decides to ditch her medication. Alice tapes episodes of Oprah, re-watching them to the point of complete memorization, and when she's not watching that, she watches long-form infomercials for dietary products. Alice's only close friend, Gina (Linda Cardellini), tried her best to support Alice through her violent moods, and Alice's psychiatrist, Dr. Moffet (Tim Robbins), shows expert patience when Alice informs him of abandoning her meds. Alice's life is transformed when she wins the California lottery, and gets $86 million. What does Alice want to do with all that money? She wants her own show, like Oprah. What does she want to talk about on her show? Herself. She finds her opportunity when she visits the set of one of her favorite infomercials in Vegas, crashes the broadcast hosted by Gabe Ruskin (Wes Bentley), and takes it hostage with her own version of off-brand television entertainment. Gabe's brother, and show producer, Rich (James Marsden), witnesses Alice's takeover, and when he discovers how much money she has, he sees her as an opportunity to save a floundering company.

Alice's idea for the show (titled 'Welcome to Me, with Alice Klieg') is just as narcissistic as it sounds. Entering the sound stage on a swan boat, she uses the hour's worth of broadcasting time to discuss her own unorthodox interests (meat loaf cake!) as well as re-enacting moments from her past using amateur performers. Gabe and Rich, along with show producer Deb (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and show director Dawn (Joan Cusack), begrudgingly play along with Alice's ideas, even as Alice's mental stability begins to crack. Writing checks for tens of millions of dollars, Alice keeps the show on the air, and it even begins to establish it's own audience who see it as a transgressive attempt at comedic performance art. Alice's ego grows as the show does, quickly alienating Gina, Dr. Moffet and all others hoping to help her. It doesn't take much to see that Alice is heading for a major crash, but what works in Welcome To Me is just how well it allows Wiig to play Alice completely straight, without judgment. There are several moments during this film where I wasn't sure if the filmmakers (directed by Shira Piven, brother of Jeremy) really understood just how tragic this story was, but it was obvious from the beginning that Wiig did every step of the way.

Welcome To Me is part of a tradition of films involving television's exploitation of the mentally ill for ratings - Network and Being There immediately come to mind. Those films had stronger screenplays and were more interested in deconstructing television culture and examining a society that prefers living vicariously through those they see on the small screen. Welcome To Me is more of a showcase for Wiig. Piven doesn't exactly direct with any conviction, but she also doesn't necessarily have to. She understands that the cast  - unbelievably loaded for a feature debut - is what will make the material float. There's something willingly lightweight about this film, though. It's produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, and you can notice the scenes where the film flirts dangerously close with their usual, more immature material. But the film has a professional cast that knows how to pull through even if the scene isn't strong - it should also be said that this is the first time that I've ever been impressed with Wes Bentley in any sort of capacity. It'd be interesting to see if Wiig continues her streak of non-commercial films. Once she breaks the dam starring in the new reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise, you may never see her in an independent film again. And maybe that's her calling, but I'm glad she's let us take a peak at her more unorthodox choices.

No comments: