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Monday, May 11, 2015

Review: Welcome to Me

Alice Klieg hasn't turned the TV off in her small, color-coded apartment in 11 years, and her shelves are lined with VHS copies of dozens of Oprah shows. She has borderline personality disorder. It complicates her relationships - with best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini), with ex-husband Ted (Alan Tudyk), new lover Gabe (Wes Bentley), and her producers Dawn (Joan Cusack) and Rich (James Marsden). But it also gives her a unique point-of-view. So when she wins an $86 million dollar lottery jackpot, she purchases a hundred hours of public access television dedicated entirely to herself - and, unexpectedly, the show proves to be a huge hit (... by public access standards). But is her very public form of therapy healthy for her and her relationships, or does taking away all semblance of structure end up making it difficult to stay balanced?

Kristen Wiig has always had an off-putting presence in her best roles, an uncomfortable energy that she frequently harnessed on Saturday Night Live in some of their most grating recurring characters. Her Welcome to Me characters takes full advantage of Wiig's particular talents, and gives her the range necessary to find the human buried beneath it all. But just as importantly, she plays this character in the real world. In a real world where she has the money necessary to get people to overlook her issues, but the real world nonetheless, so as her behavior escalates, Welcome to Me smartly acknowledges the personal and professional cost of her behavior. The movie is funny, definitely, but it never loses sight of how hard Alice's life has been, and how the audience responds to her struggle even when they may otherwise be put off by her tendency to sit in front of the camera for five straight minutes eating 'meatloaf cake' in complete silence.

At its best, Welcome to Me resembles nothing less than Charlie Kaufman free-associating a Saturday Night Live sketch that just keeps building. Alice keeps diving deeper and deeper into her obsession with television, exorcising demons publicly that just end up birthing even more demons, which she portrays in increasingly elaborate sketches and 'recreations' of part events that portray even the most minor events as brutally intense psychodramas. Alice's show within the film often resembles Tim and Eric Awesome Show in its production, pacing, and dedication to off-putting content, and Wiig's performance aggressively courts comparison to those anti-comedy icons. Director Shira Piven, working from a script by Eliot Laurence, has a talent for downbeat, character-centric comedy. Piven gets that a story like this doesn't work if we have any distance from Alice, and smartly works to get us into her headspace as often as possible. No matter how offputting she can be, we have to empathize with Alice. The movie isn't making fun of her, and it wouldn't work - dramatically or comedically - if we were either.

Unfortunately, that tendency also leads to the movie's greatest sin, wasting one of the best supporting casts I've ever seen in a film like this. Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) gets the most material out of the supporting cast as Wiig's best friend, but her role never grows beyond that - we know little about her life outside of Wiig, which makes their big confrontation, clearly a vehicle to providing a trite redemptive arc where none naturally exists, fall perilously flat. Tim Robbins (High Fidelity) is Wiig's dramatic counterpoint as a therapist who doesn't believe that she's doing quite so well as she claims. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) is Wiig's gay ex-husband, but he's tragically underutilized, as is Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Spectacular Now) and a handful of others. Only James Marsden (X2) and Wes Bentley (The Hunger Games) get their own stories, and then only barely. For better or for worse, this is a one-woman show.

Welcome to Me could be (and given what I just said, perhaps should be) a narcissistic disaster. It isn't. It's the best vehicle for Wiig's particular talents she's received to date, a quirky dramedy that takes the time to genuinely explore the meanings - and costs - of its quirks. Piven's film can be a rough watch at times, as Alice's mental illness slowly consumes a life where her vast fortune makes it hard for people to deny her anything. But that honesty gives the moments, no matter how bleak or trite, considerable power, particularly as Wiig's manic performance slowly sinks into darker territory. Not everything in Welcome to Me works, but when Wiig's Alice is on screen, forcing us to experience her life and point of view, there's something magnetic about the movie. Beautiful, even.

Welcome to Me is in limited release in theaters nationwide and available On Demand. Written by Eliot Laurence and directed by Shira Piven, Welcome to Me stars Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, and Joan Cusack.

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