Ebert’s Law famously states: “It’s not what a movie is about; it’s how it is about it.” Nowhere is that immutable law of nature more evident than in Shira Piven’s new film Welcome To Me. Written by Eliot Laurence, the film takes the episodic “Let’s Put On a Show” structure found in much sillier films (Weird Al’s UHF, for example) and grafts it onto a story about genuine mental illness. In doing so, it winds up draining most of the fun out of things. There is still plenty of comedy here, but at every turn, the film tries to remind us that this is Serious Business.
Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) lives a solitary life consumed by visits with her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins) and compulsively watching her VHS collection of Oprah Winfrey shows. One tape in particular, labeled “Your True Calling”, features Oprah imploring viewers to find their true calling and pursue it. Alice hits a lottery jackpot of $86 million and intends to do exactly that. After crashing an infomercial taping at a local access TV station, Alice informs producers Rich (James Marsden) and Dawn (Joan Cusack) that she’ll pay them $15 million to help her produce her own daily talk show.
Things spiral out of control from there, as Alice suddenly has an outlet to broadcast her borderline personality disorder beyond the four walls of her apartment. In short order her viewers discover, as we do, that there isn’t much more to Alice than her particular set of neuroses. Alice uses her show, appropriately titled “Welcome To Me,” as a chance to illustrate aspects of her own life (cooking, fashion tips, etc.), vent about past transgressions, and stage personal re-enactments that only serve as excuses for Alice to shout down actors standing in for people in her own life. These segments are written to reveal portions of her character as the film goes along, but it quickly becomes apparent that there isn’t anything we don’t already know.
Unquestionably, the show segments are the funniest parts of the film. Or at least, as funny as a film about a mentally ill person imploding in front of a live studio audience can be. Despite her obsession with becoming a talk show host like Oprah, Alice has no talent whatsoever for playing host, let along public speaking. This leads to segments where her lack of decorum turns her talk show into a bizarre sort of performance art. One weirdly enamored fan refers to it as a “narrative infomercial,” though it’s never revealed what exactly she’s supposed to be selling. In her first taping, Alice skillfully illustrates for her audience how to bake a cake (made of hamburger, because haha, she’s crazy), and then sits down to eat the cake in complete silence on live TV.
Taken on its own, the comedy of Alice haphazardly hosting her show should be enough to carry the film. On Saturday Night Live, this would be the premise that launched a thousand sketches. Taken in the context of a sick woman blowing her lottery winnings, Welcome To Me instead tries to become a dramatic meditation on cringe comedy. This would be easier to accept if Kristen Wiig weren’t so good at playing up Alice’s quirks for laughs. She restrains herself just enough to keep Alice believably awkward, but lets herself dip into absurdity when the moment calls for it. Despite Wiig’s handle on her character, the film tries to short circuit the comedy by constantly reminding us that Alice is mentally ill. A montage of a talk show host neutering dogs in front of a live studio audience is already hilarious; setting that montage to The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” is cinematic shorthand for “Stop laughing, you’re supposed to take this seriously.”
Welcome To Me runs a mercifully short 88 minutes. Any longer, and what little charm the film actually has would run dry. (It somehow ran twenty minutes longer at Sundance.) While it’s fun watching Alice take her talk show closer and closer to Peewee’s Playhouse with each passing episode, the film kills that vibe by showing us the end result of Alice’s game. It turns out letting a mentally ill person do and say whatever she wants on television will get you countless lawsuits, an alienated best friend (Linda Cardinelli), and millions of dollars in the hole. Fancy that. While it’s true that where some see comedy, others see drama, the fact that Welcome To Me feels obliged to service both in equal measure ultimately ruins what could have been a great…one or the other.
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