Perhaps the craziest thing about “Welcome to Me,” the TV show within the movie called “Welcome to Me,” is it actually might work as a real television show, even though it’s two hours of a woman with borderline personality disorder focusing on just one topic: herself. Her hopes, her dreams, her grudges, and the key moments from her past that shaped her.
Sometimes Alice coaches actors playing the young version of herself and her friends. Sometimes she extols the virtues of her odd diet. Often she’ll reveal stunning secrets about her past, and her current way of life. People clicking around might think they’ve stumbled upon an elongated piece of performance art, or the worst and yet most expensive-looking cable access show in the history of television. But it’s difficult to look away.
Hey. In a universe in which hit shows are made of pawnbrokers, country bumpkins and C-list stars in dancing competitions, who’s to say?
Kristen Wiig gives perhaps the most impressive performance I’ve seen this year as Alice Klieg, a deeply troubled California woman with a deadpan style of conversational delivery (she has almost no social filters), and fixations on Oprah Winfrey, swan figurines, the neutering of dogs and foods low on carbohydrates, among other things.
It’s a tricky business playing someone who is mentally ill and perhaps should be confined for observation, especially in a dark comedy. Wiig manages to make Alice funny as hell, endearing, sad and sometimes a little frightening. There’s not an ounce of condescension or preciousness in the performance. Alice is seriously messed up, and there’s no magic cure in store for her, but she just might find the right balance between taking her meds, trying a little harder to assimilate and achieving something close to inner peace.
When Alice wins $86 million in the California lottery, she shows up at a local TV station and announces her desire to write and star in a talk show called “Welcome to Me.” The only reason they indulge her is the station is in dire need of cash, and Alice is willing to spend millions to get her own show.
Alice wants Oprah-like production values and she has very specific ideas about the show, e.g., she will make an entrance on a swan. Not a real swan, mind you, but a vehicle in the shape of a swan. Because remember, Alice loves swans.
And television. Have we mentioned she hasn’t turned off her own TV in 11 years? It’s her electric comfort blanket.
Wes Bentley and James Marsden are Gabe and Rich, respectively, the two brothers who own the place. Gabe is quirky and has a heart; Rich is all about the money. Other staffers include the priceless Joan Cusack as a producer-director who becomes something of a mother figure to Alice; and Jennifer Jason Leigh, terrific as a crew member who becomes increasingly concerned Alice is being exploited.
We also get Tim Robbins in a sublime and funny performance as Alice’s therapist, who’s so chill we almost expect him to nod off during their sessions, and Linda Cardellini as Alice’s loyal and long-suffering best friend. There’s nothing not to love about this cast.
Working from a script by Eliot Laurence, director Shira Piven (sister of Jeremy, daughter of Joyce and Byrne) deftly mixes the visual tones of the film. In scenes away from the television station, where Alice meets with her therapist, has dinner with her family (including her ex-husband and his gay lover) and goes out on a strange date with Gabe, “Welcome to Me” plays like a straightforward, albeit offbeat, indie movie.
But the show within the movie, the show called “Welcome to Me,” has an entirely different feel. The crew in the control room and the studio audience look on with a mixture of horror and genuine affection, always on edge to see what Alice will do next. She might just sit and eat, she might preside over the actual neutering of dogs, or she might explode in a fit of rage if something goes wrong.
Money can’t buy Alice happiness, but it affords her the opportunity to express herself on her own terms, inside the very box to which she’s addicted. There’s never a moment when we’re not worried about her, but that’s because we’ve come to care so much about her. Alice is disturbed. Alice is also a treasure.