Despite boasting a hurricane of a performance from Kristen Wiig, it is perhaps the mostly unseen forces that prove the most powerful in “Welcome to Me,” a thoughtful black comedy that takes aim at a generation encouraged to believe their lives are a television show in which they deserve to be the star.
Shira Piven’s second feature, with a script from Eliot Laurence, makes this idea literal with the story of Alice Klieg (Wiig), a shut-in with borderline personality disorder who thrusts herself into the spotlight after hitting the jackpot in the California Stacks Sweepstakes to the tune of $86 million. Money, however, is not what Alice values most, but rather an audience, which becomes clear from the moment she uses her lottery press conference to confide deeply personal details about her life. Still, the winnings open doors that had been previously closed to Alice, including those of a low-rate cable network that specializes in infomercials called New Vibrance, and after finding her way into the audience of a show with a self-help guru (Wes Bentley), she catches a cameraman’s eye and suddenly her dream of having her own show suddenly becomes feasible, so long as she’s willing to pay for it.
Piven doesn’t skimp on finding the humor in the inherent absurdity of giving someone mentally unstable their own talk show – a poignant moment of soul-searching for the amateur host takes place as dogs are being neutered and The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” playing in the background, surely something the film’s perverse executive producer Adam McKay didn’t object to. However, it also doesn’t flinch from acknowledging all the enablers who have let the unthinkable happen, from Rich (James Marsden), the co-head of New Vibrance who is more than happy to look the other way so long as his checks clear, to Oprah Winfrey, Alice’s idol who christened the legions of self-empowerment speakers and mantras that become dangerous when the wrong people latch onto them.
In many ways, “Welcome to Me” plays as a 21st Century version of “Being There,” since like Chauncey Gardiner before her, Alice internalizes what she’s seen on TV without properly digesting it. But whereas Chauncey was as much a simpleton about the medium as the message, Alice is quite knowing about the medium, making sure that while her show is entirely about her, it will include cooking segments, audience call-ins (but notably no guests to steal her spotlight) and a boat decorated like a swan to escort her out since presentation clearly matters to her.
It’s heady stuff for Piven to get into only a film removed from her debut “Fully Loaded,” a scrappy but equally barbed two-hander, and not all of “Welcome to Me” works – Alice’s seemingly inevitable breakdown might’ve been handled more sensitively by a director with more experience and while she recruited a cast of heavy hitters, many of whom such as Linda Cardellini as Alice’s only friend, Tim Robbins as her put-upon therapist and Joan Cusack as the control room maven for The Alice Klieg Show knock their scenes out of the park, some don’t seem to get much attention. (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in particular, feels as if she had a larger part that was cut as the one person at New Vibrance who vehemently wants no part of Alice’s show.)
However, “Welcome to Me” largely refrains from going in the obvious direction and hits its marks more often than not, hitting them hard either with stinging humor or shrewd observation or both simultaneously. This isn’t only a credit to Piven and Laurence, but also to Wiig, who moves so fluidly between Alice’s childlike enthusiasm (accented nicely in David Robbins’ twinkly, lullabyish score) and deep-seated personal pain. That Wiig continues to use the clout she gained from the success of “Bridesmaids” to push herself in daring films one can’t imagine would be made otherwise is admirable, but the real excitement is seeing her flex her muscles as an actress, with “Welcome to Me” providing her with her most complex role yet. And while Alice hasn’t done anything worthy of seizing the spotlight, Wiig certainly has.
“Welcome to Me” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play twice more on Sept. 6 at the Scotiabank 12 at 6 pm and Sept.13 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at 6 pm.