Everyone wants to be on TV,” Alice Klieg firmly believes, and this is a supposition about our world that is difficult to disprove. It’s also a supposition that is easy to send up… but Welcome to Me does not take that easy road. It takes a uncomfortable road paved with raw, uncensored emotion that is startling for the portrait it creates of the woman at its center — one of the more realistic depictions of mental illness I’ve seen, though I cannot claim to have a lot of direct experience of the particular affliction she is coping with — and for the unflattering mirror it holds up to the noxious culture we are all most definitely coping with. Barely hidden under a quirky black comedy about a not-well woman trying her best to save herself is a savage satire on a not-well world that doesn’t even realize there’s anything wrong.
Alice (Kristen Wiig: How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Skeleton Twins) has borderline personality disorder. She is the center of her own little world, much like we all are, of course… but her world is one in which her id rules her and spews forth an unfiltered stream of instinctive consciousness onto all around her. (Maybe that’s a stream of unconsciousness? Subconsciousness?) Grudges over small injustices done her years ago still fester inside her and taunt her. She is a narcissist of the highest order, almost of a profound order: everything is about her in the same way it is for a toddler, and she throws tantrums like a toddler, too. But she’s not an unkind person, and she’s not a thoughtless person… though her kindnesses and considerations are more often directed toward inanimate objects or small animals rather than the people who care about her.
The first remarkable thing about Welcome to Me is Wiig’s performance as Alice. She — Wiig as well as Alice — is full of fury and fear and existential angst like movies never let women be. But Wiig also embodies a fragility that keeps us on Alice’s side even as she becomes difficult and infuriating, and she is difficult and infuriating in ways that illustrate with unusual, sometimes oblique insight a reality about people with mental illnesses that movies rarely appreciate: that they are not dangerous except to themselves (sometimes physically, but also emotionally and socially). And there’s a humor to Alice that never invites us to laugh at her, though never quite with her, either. (She is a fairly mirthless person.) We laugh — or, rather, chuckle uneasily — because she is “allowed” to externalize the running interior monologue we all carry on with ourselves, in our heads. When she has to really talk to someone, she uses a “prepared statement,” which is typically no less all-over-the-place and TMI than her usual conversation, but it does represent the sort of careful forethought most people do automatically so that we don’t embarrass ourselves in public by saying what we’re really thinking. (I mean, this isn’t just me, right? Everyone censors their internal monologue for public consumption, don’t they? Except for the ignorant sociopathic fucking philistines, obviously, like right-wing politicians, who think we all share their illiterate terror of anything they don’t understand. Oops, did I just say that?)
If Alice herself is a troubling question about the fine line between supposed “illness” and supposed “health,” then so is her story about the fine line between cultural sickness and general well-being. Because what this movie is all about is how, when she wins $86 million in a California lottery, she suddenly has the means to bring the world of Alice to the world at large. She buys her own talk show on local cable TV — the sort of station that typically airs cringe-inducing infomercials — but she doesn’t want to have guests or topics, except herself and herself. She is obsessed with Oprah and self-help philosophies, and it’s hard to say whether this is a symptom of her illness or a symptom of a larger cultural illness. But her show is going to be the ultimate in self-centered, look-at-me-I’m-on-TV egotism. Alice doesn’t realize this. Or, rather, she doesn’t realize that this might be problematic, or emblematic of a perhaps sick world. She just knows she can talk about her raging emotions and the food fads she uses to control her moods and her mother’s nagging and her shrink’s nagging and those long-ago injustices, and people will listen. A lot of people. (Hopefully.)
How are Alice and her show any different from sex-tape celebs and reality television? Your guess is as good as mine. She may not have deliberately set out to do anything other than celebrate herself, but that’s a slim distinction when the results are virtually indistinguishable from “entertainment” starring self-aggrandizing egomaniacs who are famous because they’re famous. Alice is like an outsider performance artist. Her show is like a reverse Truman Show. If her work is evidence of a need, as her shrink (Tim Robbins: Life of Crime, Green Lantern) suggests, that she be put on a “psychiatric hold,” what does that say about half of what’s on TV and on the Internet?
Not much, I’d say. Certainly nothing good.
Welcome to Me is a sort of a miracle. It’s a low-budget movie that had no chance of success in our pop-culture environment today because it rails against the bulk of what passes for entertainment today; the mass of people who like that stuff were probably never going to like this, because it diagnoses that entertainment as disordered, and it’s not very flattering to anyone individually or to all of us collectively. It’s a miracle because it got made at all, thanks to director Shira Piven and first-time screenwriter Eliot Laurence, and also producers Wiig and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. It’s a little light in the darkness.