MOVIE REVIEW: Welcome to Me



There is that often-referenced saying that "everyone loves a good trainwreck," one that they can't look away from.  It's an idiom everyone gets, but it comes with a qualifier.  Trainwrecks are supposed to be accidental.  The unknown surprise factor and shock value of what is about to happen in an impending (literal or figurative) trainwreck are central to what makes them instinctual irresistible.  With that in mind, the manufactured or staged trainwrecks that people create intentionally just don't pull off the same effect.  Realism and happenstance will always trump a really well planned gag or stunt.  Once it's planned, some of the fun is taken away.

Let's talk about that conundrum.  "Welcome to Me," the feature directorial debut of Chicago-area playwright Shira Piven (brother to Jeremy) is a Mobius strip of a trainwreck.  It premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened simultaneously in limited theatrical release and Video On Demand on May 8.  Simply put, the film is a trainwreck... of a trainwreck.  Starring an extremely invested Kristen Wiig, the film is, to its credit, a bold character piece and black comedy that seeks to put a trainwreck of a person on display in an effort to preach larger moral questions.  As bold as it is in that intention, "Welcome to Me" doesn't achieve that and overshoots every landing possible.  It's that really well planned gag or stunt that can't match the real thing because it's been too manufactured to where the unpredictability is taken away or feels forced.  It's the second coming of "Dinner for Schmucks," in terms of cringe comedy, and that film was bad but at least funnier.

Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a sad sack of a failed introvert living in some stretch of medium-sized southern California desert suburbia.  Insulated to her many, many quirks, she lives vicariously through an unhealthy obsession with all things Oprah Winfrey.  Similar to Jake Gyllenhaal's menacing loner from "Nightcrawler," but without the sociopathic tendencies, Alice's deepest motivations and education come from she sponges from media and television, particularly old VHS recordings of Oprah's shows as if that was the ideal path in life.  The catch to what makes all of this perfectly OK is that Alice suffers from borderline personality disorder, a long-term diagnosis and struggle that has been chronicled by her shrink, Dr. Moffat (Academy Award winner Tim Robbins), and her only best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini).  

Everything changes for Alice when she wins $86 million dollars from the state lottery.  She sets herself on track of her own design to change her life.  Alice drops her meds, moves into a casino hotel, and spends frivolously to her heart's content.  While attending a local TV live taping of health gimmick infomercial starring Gabe Ruskin (Wes Bentley), she emerges as a volunteer from the audience and her zany antics and personality hijack the show.  Gabe's producer brother Rich (James Marsden) witnesses this and has to meet this woman.  Being the Oprah fan that Alice is, she flips the script and drops Rich a enormous check for $15 million with the proposal to star in 100 episodes of her own self-hosted talk show.  

The greedy Rich throws ethics out the window and can't turn down that level of automatic money.  He agrees to grant Alice her wish, much to the chagrin of his more upstanding production team (including Joan Cusack and Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Thus, "Welcome to Me," a narrative infomercial is born.  Mostly unscripted and way out there, Alice puts herself and her life on display in front of the camera with blind honesty to all of her quirks and flaws.  Just like that proverbial trainwreck analogy, more and more people soon gravitate to her larger-than-life persona and can't turn away.  Some see an art while others can't stop watching the craziness of what might happen next as a guilty pleasure.

That range of reaction within the film will match your own reaction to "Welcome to Me" as well.  You will either be amazed and agape at this intentional "Truman Show" like stunt or you will be catapulted to WTF land with the other half.  In that regard, it is this website's assertion that it misses the mark wildly.

Don't get me wrong.  Kristen Wiig absolutely, positively, and as bravely as possible dives into every possible trait of strangeness to make this character of Alice Klieg wholly unique.  Sure, on one level, asking a deadpan comedienne like Wiig to play crazy isn't a stretch.  She's done shades of this kind of character for years on "Saturday Night Live," but to watch her commit and go-for-it to this level is more than noteworthy.  A two-minute sketch of a weirdo character has its limits.  A role like this required so much more and Kristen Wiig gives it everything she's got.  This is, substantially, the most engaging she's ever been on-screen and earns this film its one star, but that's it.  The effort is there, but the execution is off.  Let me explain.

Watching Wiig represent Alice Klieg's borderline personality disorder feels way too much like Thomas Horn's polarizing portrayal of child on the autistic spectrum in the exploitative 9/11-themed film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" from 2011.  In that film, the character's autistic traits were way over-amplified and become both inaccurate and precocious instead of endearing.  The Klieg portrait of borderline personality disorder feels like screenwriter Eliot Lawrence picked only the a la carte fun symptoms from the WebMD website for BPD that could get provocative laughs and put them in a Hollywood package as a glamour project for someone of Wiig's talent (and possible ego).  Like Horn in 2011, it's all too much. 

That's where the manufactured part comes in for "Welcome to Me."  Wiig's performance is off-the-charts, yes, but the movie fails to capitalize on it with the "big picture" next step.  Piven and company (including the co-producing team of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Piven's own husband) try, but they can't get out of their own way.  The moral questions the movie thinks it is posing get lost in the theatrics.  

This preposterous talk show angle is supposed to be exactly that, but it so extreme as a trainwreck, that the film never makes it to a "Nightcrawler" or "The Truman Show" level of really making us scratch our heads about what we consider realism, entertainment, or art in the wild world of television.  If you're going for dark comedy where drama and melancholy are being used as extra ingredients, that is how high they should have been aiming.  

Furthermore, because Alice is over-tuned with the BPD, we never reach that necessary empathy/sympathy level towards the disease.  The film wants us to feel sorry for her and better respect her condition, but it has a hard time getting to that point without eye-rolling shock gags balanced with lame predictability.  Those two huge ideals were supposed to be what "Welcome to Me" hung its hat on at the end of the day, but the showmanship deflated and stole any strength to do that.  This one is for extreme Kristen Wiig fans only.

LESSON #1: THE TRAITS OF BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER-- Despite them being dialed up to 11 and mixed disproportionately, the symptoms visible in Alice Klieg are, on some level, real aspects of BPD.  The instability, idealization and devaluation of other people, fluctuating self-image, irritability, and the swings between the interpreted and actual senses of success and disappointment are all on display in a quirky portrait that leaves out the unsightly anger and volatility that can really be lying under the surface from the outward parts we giggle at but shouldn't.

LESSON #2: MONEY CAN ENABLE A NEW LIFE BUT NOT CURE LIFE'S TROUBLES-- Alice thinks doing "Welcome to Me" is her chance to become famous and elevate herself to the world.  She thinks that notoriety can correct all of the wrong that has happened to her in the past before this point of have the money and means to create your own television show.  As part of the disease, she believes in her view and path 100%, without thoughts of consequence, and the money becomes an enabler.  As it turns out, money gave her the platform, but it really didn't fix any of troubles in life.  Those can only be fixed by the person, not with a check.

LESSON #3: PEOPLE WILL WATCH ANYTHING ON TELEVISION, ESPECIALLY TRAINWRECKS -- The public's appetite of new and interesting television is voracious and insatiable.  That hunger is even greater for the unscripted and unexpected.  The enormous movement over the last 20 years towards so-called "reality television," whether MTV-bases shared houses, bearded duck hunters down south, crab fisherman in Alaska, redneck beauty pageant children and their moms, or spoiled celebrity families, shows that people want to watch the weirdness of others.  They want to hate-watch other people's flaws, more often than not to laugh at others and feel better about themselves.  Rarely do any of the subjects of those shows ever come out looking good.  The whole cycle is sickening when you think about it.  On a fictional level, "Welcome to Me" and the exploits of its Alice amplify the idea that people really will watch anything.