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Welcome to Me

D: Shira Piven / 105m

Cast: Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Mann, James Marsden, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk

Alice Klieg (Wiig) suffers from borderline personality disorder and lives off of benefits. She doesn’t have a job, but she is on medication and she sees a psychiatrist, Dr Daryl Moffet (Robbins). She plays the California state lottery each week; when she wins $86 million, Alice decides she wants to regain the life she had before she was diagnosed. She stops taking her medication and tells Dr Moffet that she no longer wishes to see him. She also moves out of her apartment and goes to stay in a casino hotel.

An avid TV watcher, Alice becomes enamoured of a show hosted by Gabe Ruskin (Bentley). She is in the audience one day when a volunteer is needed; Alice rushes to the stage. What follows attracts the attention of Gabe’s brother, Rich (Marsden), his producer and with Gabe co-owner of the production company that airs the show. Alice takes the opportunity to request a show of her own that she wants to call Welcome to Me. When she pays for a hundred two-hour shows upfront, Rich agrees to her suggestion – though the rest of the production team aren’t so sold on the idea. The first show airs and is a disaster, but instead of being put off, Alice invests more money into the show, thus making it look more professional.

She and Gabe begin a relationship, and the show slowly gains in popularity thanks to Alice’s confessional approach to the show’s content, and re-enactments of key scenes from her past. However, as she becomes more and more fixated on the show, her family and her closest friend, Gina (Cardellini) are largely forgotten about. She has a brief fling with a college reporter (Mann); when Gabe learns about it on one of Alice’s shows he’s visibly upset and angry. And when Alice accidentally spills hot chili on herself, burning her chest and upper arms, he reassessment of what the show needs leads to her carrying out live neutering of dogs and cats.

Things come to a head when Gabe quits and Rich learns that, thanks to Alice’s slanderous statements about people on her show, the company is facing a number of lawsuits. Rich confronts Alice live on air and tells her she needs to change her ideas about the show and fast. This causes Alice to halt the show and return to the casino hotel where in the days that follow she suffers a nervous breakdown. While she’s in hospital – and back on her medication – Alice begins to think of a way in which she can make it up to all the people she’s let down.

Welcome to Me - scene

Treading a very fine line between being sympathetic (mostly) and exploitative (occasionally), Welcome to Me is an odd movie that appears to go to some lengths to make its audience uncomfortable while watching it. We’ve had movies that feature characters with mental health problems many, many, many times before, but none that have placed them in a world where their private fantasies have been given such a free rein, and so easily.

The problem with the movie’s treatment of Alice is that it wants you to believe that she has a plan when in fact she really doesn’t. It also wants you to believe that a television production company would let Alice on the air without first vetting her and putting any relevant checks and balances in place. This isn’t public service broadcasting, and the speed and the convenience of Alice’s show hitting the airwaves (and making it onto the ratings) makes for an unconvincing development. And it’s during these segments that it becomes clear the script – by Eliot Laurence – doesn’t really know what to do with Alice, or how to explore the traumatic experiences that have triggered Alice’s disorder.

It’s a shame as it takes the edge off of Wiig’s inspired performance – possibly her best to date – and saddles the movie with several tiresome stretches that fail to engage as effectively as when the action happens away from the studio. Laurence and director Piven (sister of Jeremy, and wife of co-producer Adam McKay) invest a lot of time and effort in making Alice such a credible, fully believable character, and then place her in a milieu that doesn’t even bother to reflect on the vagaries of being a celebrity with mental health problems. It does touch on the way in which fame can isolate celebrities from the “normal” people around them, but in Alice’s case she’s already isolated, so where is the drama? And it doesn’t help that the characters surrounding Alice aren’t as sufficiently well drawn as she is, leaving cast members such as Marsden and Bentley struggling to make much of an impact (Marsden is particularly ill-served).

With all the focus and attention going on Alice, it’s to Wiig’s credit that she inhabits the role so completely and confidently that she carries the movie effortlessly, making up for the shortfall elsewhere. In fact, it’s such a strong, emotive performance that the movie loses its footing on the rare occasions she’s not on screen. Emotionally adrift yet  bound up in her own unresolved feelings of anger and rejection, Alice is a role that suits Wiig’s ability to “blank face” to a tee; you can see Alice looking out at you and seeing right through you at the same time.

Elsewhere, Clayton Hartley’s production design (reflecting the chaotic nature of Alice’s mind at home and in the studio), and David Robbins’ score (providing clever emotional cues for Alice’s behaviour) work to the movie’s advantage, while the script’s attempts at quirky, indie sensibility humour work with more of a success rate than the drama does.

Rating: 6/10 – a decent idea but lacking a through follow through, Welcome to Me ultimately has little to say about mental illness or the perils of being a modern day celebrity; relenting when it should be biting, this is saved (constantly) by Wiig’s ambitious and exhilarating performance.