She enters in a swan boat to a meager audience barely populating the struggling studio wherein her talk show is being recorded and aired for the first time. Her is she. She is me. Me is Alice Klieg.
Alice is a Californian divorcee in her early 40’s who has been fighting against mental illness for most of her life. Her diagnosis has moved with the times — at the moment she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder; but, as she asks, “who can keep up?” She owns a VHS collection (she has taped herself) containing the Complete Works of Oprah Winfrey, to whom she listens as the highest priestess of pop-wisdom. With Oprah, Alice has sealed a bond with TV that has just crystallized with the talk show of which she’s host, creator, writer . . . and, of course, the main and only sponsor. Oh, did I mention that she has just won 86 million dollars in the lottery? It is with this money that she moves into a reservation casino, stops taking her meds, rents a limousine in which she travels 24 hrs a day, and embarks on translating her dream into a reality — on the boat just described.
This is both a promising and a risky plotline for a comedy. The main risk of creating comedy from a character fighting mental illness is that it may end up oscillating between coy condescendence and insufferable ignorance. Welcome to Me does neither. Although it is a dark and frequently odd comedy, there are no cheap laughs here, as they immediately invite us to reflect upon what we are laughing at. And although we never really laugh at Alice, we don’t laugh with her either.
The title of the movie is also the title of Alice’s TV show (or likely one stems from the other). But one cannot help thinking that Welcome to Me is, though honest, not the most appropriate name for a talk show (or for any show for that matter). At a first glance (is there an equivalent expression for our auditory system? something like “at a first tune?”), such a name sounds as though it had been conceived by a delusional egomaniac; it could be the slogan for Donald Trump’s current political entourage (there’s an idea) or the working title for his next TV series (which would probably come second in New Hampshire). But this is not this film’s case.
Welcome to Me opens with a quote from Michel de Montaigne’s “Essays” (“Of Experience”): “I study myself more than any other subject; that’s my physics, my metaphysics.” Montaigne’s words on the essential relationship between self-knowledge and self-exploration were written in the context of discussing the fallibility of human law, and thus in the context of showing how knowing oneself always proves more important than knowing the law, for even though the law may often be unjust, one should be not. Laws are written by other people, one’s actions are done by oneself.
Life has been unjust with Alice. And though she has a friend who loves her deeply, Gina (Linda Cardellini, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”), and an ex-husband who cares for her dearly, Ted (Alan Tudyk, “42”), there’s something constantly darkening her efforts to make herself listened and, more importantly, recognized. There’s a recurrent feeling that Alice needs to be listened to so as to feel a complete person, and there is an even more recurrent feeling that she had to strive too much so as to be taken seriously. Is she too honest for her own good? Everything she says often proves too brusque for televised conventions (and for almost any other convention). But there’s something else. Alice needs to be listened to in order to put her thoughts together. She frequently finds herself preparing written statements from which she reads messages she means to convey clearly and succinctly, as she proves prone to lose herself within capricious streams of consciousness. And then there’s the feeling too that the line between self-exploration and self-absorption is too blur for her to determine.
This blurry border between self-absorption and self-exploration is further amplified by the just as thin line between exhibitionism and munificence. At points, Alice’s talk show seems an open access to her heart, her thoughts, her wounds, her yearnings, her cravings, her — me. But there are other points at which she uses TV to do what her mother calls “emotional exhibitionism”; it becomes a platform to get even with people who have hurt her, or to badmouth those she feels are ill-natured. And then she can be very unjust. As so often happens with fame (or mild attention, which is what Alice gets), particularly when this is something you’ve been craving for forever, she unjustly tosses small vendettas on-the-air to those she thinks underestimate her (i.e., her psychiatrist, Tim Robbins, “Green Lantern”), or had done so for too long a time (i.e., her mother), only to recognize she had wronged them once she’s down on her luck. Then it becomes difficult to tell whether she’s using this medium for sharing or for showing off.
She’s doing both, clearly, because delimiting clear borders is one of the hardest things for her to do. She can “feel too much” when she’s supposed not to feel at all and not feel at all when “she’s supposed to feel something.” That’s the story of Alice’s lovelife, as she passionately fires a relation with another man after he tells her that he also “loves too much” (co-owner of the low-budget studios producing her show, Gabe Ruskin [Wes Bentley, “Interstellar”]) just to then fuel a similar, spontaneous flame with a graduate student who insists in elevating her show into an artform she’s not even aware of (Thomas Mann, “Beautiful Creatures”). The point is that but a little recognition lights a fire that Alice finds most difficult to fathom with, as she gives herself entirely to the recognizer just as, simultaneously, becomes absorbed by such recognition.
This surely is, as you have read, a very complex character — really, really complex. And this is where the work of Kristen Wiig (“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”) stands out — really, really. She’s at the top of her game combining sensual awkwardness with empathetic goofiness. Her comedic dexterity does a huge lot in providing Alice with a full three-dimensional being. Everything we need to see in Alice, all her impasses and contradictions is to be found in those glassy green eyes from which a fully rounded person is striving to emerge. But this is a difficult thing, as — loving friend and caring husband notwithstanding — Alice’s avid need of attention ends up consuming Alice’s authentic will to give herself to others.
But, unlike the feeling we likely got with “The Truman Show” (such a script, such a director deserved a better lead), one feels that such a pitch-perfect performance and such a subtle script deserved a better movie. In terms of comedy, Shira Piven (this is her second feature, the first being the equally uneven “Fully Loaded”) shows a very good sense of timing. Most of the gags (and, it should be noted, these are quite difficult to pull off) are effectively set (with the support of a very fortunate cast, in which Joan Cusack, [“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”], shines). However, in terms of cinema, her direction is, at times, irregular, and, more often, faltering.
If it is true that this is the kind of movie that benefits from ambiguity, that saying less and leaving more to the audience to infer is much more convincing than taking a definitive stand, it is just as true that to do such a thing effectively the standpoint from which the movie is told needs to be all the more firm. However, Welcome to Me is told from an odd combination between an omniscient narrator and a sympathetic know-it-all. We’re sure we’re not looking at Alice’s world through her eyes; yet we’re never sure whether we’re some sort of appendage of the camera (or of the many cameras) Alice wants to be looked at, since the camera is far more concerned with moving the story than with telling it. The eye of the camera is as far removed as the eye of a camera is on a talk show. Also, words (and not images) are too often used as crutches to explain the nature of Alice’s relationships. This creates an emotional void, as we’re never certain whether we should be feeling anything at all when some relation breaks or when another one blooms. Such a void thus makes for a most anticlimactic climax — just as anticlimactic as the grand-finale of Alice’s show. Piven’s best moment as a director, paradoxically, comes right at the film’s epilogue. As the credits roll by one cannot help but asking why didn’t she make use of such subtlety all the way through.
However, my main issue is with Welcome to Me is in its portrayal of mental illness, which although deeply respectful and sensitive, ultimately retains the binary of “disorder” vs. “normality” that still reigns as a social (and a medical) paradigm. The almost insensible line there is between control and help is scantly sketched in this film and, moreover, poorly probed by its director — all the credit here goes to its lead. As I write these lines, I think about a recent film wherein a similar “disorder” is more eloquently, more cohesively, more organically explored — mental note: Write a review about it.