A bit of conventional wisdom in the world of comedy: wacky behavior isn't as funny without the reaction to wacky behavior. Given the sheer brilliance of Kristin Wiig, one might question this maxim as it applies to Welcome to Me. But director Shira Piven clearly understands and applies this technique, not only for the film's comedy but also its tragedy: what happens to Wiig's character, borderline personality disorder sufferer Alice Klieg, is both more funny and more wrenchingly poignant because it is witnessed: up close and personal, as well as in broadcast form via an outpost in the far numerical reaches of cable television.
As evidenced by its title, Welcome to Me, explores profound narcissism. As it happens, Alice's extreme self-involvement is symptomatic of her borderline personality disorder and enabled by an $86 million Lotto jackpot. Off her meds and handed, by fate, total financial independence, Alice rides out a perfect storm of personal promotion and hyperbolic social reinvention. Her elderly parents (Jack Wallace and Joyce Hiller Piven, hilariously out of it and/or appalled), therapist Daryl (Tim Robbins), gay ex-husband (Alan Tudyk), and best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini) bear witness as Alice moves into a reservation casino hotel and drops $15 million on nearly bankrupt fraternal local-TV-station owners Gabe and Rich Ruskin (Wes Bentley and James Marsden) for 100 episodes of something called "Welcome to Me with Alice Klieg." Emboldened by her homemade VHS collection of motivational Oprah episodes, Alice knows she can be the next best guru for lost souls like herself and, implicitly, heal herself in the process.
As is her wont, Wiig plays her role with total commitment, fearlessness, and lack of vanity, anointing Alice with kooky cadences, eerie stiffness with self-conscious gestures, laborious mispronunciations, and near-total insensitivity to the clear and present collateral damage she wreaks. Alice's bizarre sherbet-colored fashion sense—starting with parasol, sunglasses and fanny pack on her initial perambulations to her local market—also evolves in a misguided effort to be camera-ready and celebrity-appropriate in ostensibly more elegant dresses. As the tyrannical producer of her own show, Alice fashions it to be the ultimate tribute to her taste, experience and philosophies, and so it is that she enters on a swan boat; crafts a meatloaf cake with sweet-potato icing, then eats it, in an uncomfortably long cooking segment; and stages reenactments of her formative social traumas, which she cannot help but interrupt by screaming at the actors at their inadequacy in fully capturing the emotional impact only Alice can completely understand.
All this and much, much more effectively toe a line between far-out hilarity and well-rounded characterization, the high-flying laughs at times crashing to earth when horrifying emotion takes the wind out of Alice's sails. This daring dichotomy is clearly intentional on the part of screenwriter Eliot Laurence, Piven, and Wiig (who also produces), and helps to capture truths about our responses to mental illness, our rush to judge, the arguably exploitative nature of outsider art, and the sobering realization that an easy object of ridicule is, in all likelihood, a person in deep crisis. Perhaps Laurence would have done better not to put a name on Alice's illness, which runs a real risk of specifically stigmatizing BPD sufferers, but the choice (along with Alice's real hurt in the form of past domestic abuse, remediated in her new life by recklessly using men for ego-boosting sex) is another sign of Welcome to Me's daring.
Above and beyond the personal psychological implications, Welcome to Me is the movie we deserve in the age of social media and cable television, a satiric child of Paddy Chayevsky's Network in its autopsy of "vox populi" viral video and televisional "reality" celebrities—the realer the trainwreck, the slower the rubbernecking. Alice's mother pegs her daughter as an "emotional exhibitionist," a truism evident in her pitch to Gabe: "I have a topic...Me...What I love, my hopes, my dreams, what I like to eat, who I think is a cunt, my spirituality. Me." In other words, welcome to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where self-absorption, voluntary anti-privacy, and betrayed trusts are practically required. At one point, Alice hugs her TV, which she's had on for eleven years running. Given most Americans' constantly plugged-in lifestyle, "Welcome to Me with Alice Klieg" allows its star to live the dream by entering into the media cocoon from which we're never quite reborn.
And then there are the reactors: Wiig's supporting cast—also including Thomas Mann (as an outsider-art-admiring mass media student) and Joan Cusack and Jennifer Jason Leigh as amazed and frustrated employees of the Ruskin brothers—is thoroughly outstanding. Piven deserves credit for getting everyone to harmonize on the tone and choosing the deliriously off-kilter source music, from South Pacific's "Happy Talk," performed with islander accent by Muriel Smith, to "Catch a Falling Star," crazily warbled by Mrs. Miller. To our delight and edification, Welcome to Me dances on the edge, helping us better to know our own fragility, and that of our neighbors, in dark-comedic extremis.
Alchemy sends home Welcome to Me on Blu-ray with creditable tech specs and a humble bonus feature. The hi-def transfer captures all the color and subtlety of the source material with well-calibrated contrast and nicely resolved detail, consistently yielding clear, clean imagery under the potent lighting of the television studio and in the shadowy confines of Alice's apartment. Though this comedy doesn't work a home theater very hard, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix handily meets the film's needs, with dialogue always free and clear of the sound effects and underscore—which, along with the source music—has full-bodied character in this lossless presentation.
The sole extra is a "Featurette" (7:59, HD) that includes plenty of film clips and interview snippets with Kristin Wiig, writer Eliot Laurence, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, director Shira Piven, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, and producers Aaron L. Gilbert and Jessica Elbaum discussing the story, characters, and each other.
If you missed this sleeper in the theaters, now's your chance to check it out or, better yet, add it to your collection of top-notch comedies.
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