Welcome to Me might as well have been called The Kristen Wiig Show, for better or for worse. It makes a splendid showcase for the brilliant actress’s brand of mousy absurdism, and for her ability to modulate tone. The film dances between hilarity and disquiet, between goofiness and pathos. But I’m not even sure it can be called a movie; it feels like a setup and a character in search of a story.
Wiig plays Alice Krieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder who lives in an apartment festooned with swan statues, lottery tickets, and old VHS recordings of Oprah, most of which she’s memorized. One day, she actually wins the lottery and suddenly finds herself $86 million richer. That gives her the freedom to change her life around. “As a new member of the rich and famous, I simply don’t have time for the pain,” she says, reading off a prepared statement, as she attempts to bid good-bye to her state-mandated shrink (played by a wonderfully deadpan Tim Robbins). Alice always seems to have prepared statements to read — often uncomfortably confessional ones — but her ordinary conversation also sounds scripted as well, speaking as she usually does in an awkward monotone. I was regularly reminded of any number of Wiig characters from her SNL days, only this time she’s not quite playing it for laughs. Or rather, she is, but with a growing awareness that somewhere behind the absurdity lies deep, gnawing hurt. It’s as if the actress is turning the tables not just on her audience but also on herself.
Alice says she wants to do “something big” with her life, and she does: She gets her own talk show. Never mind the fact that she doesn’t have any ideas for the show, only that it be about her, that she enter on a swan boat (à la Ludwig II of Bavaria, I suppose), and that it be two hours long; she can pay for 100 episodes in advance and goes into partnership with two brothers (played by Wes Bentley and James Marsden) whose infomercial production racket has fallen on hard times. Their producers (played by Joan Cusack and Jennifer Jason Leigh, both sadly underutilized) think the idea is ridiculous and unconscionable. But Alice has money, so Alice has her way. As Dennis Hopper once said in Speed, “Poor people are crazy … I’m eccentric!”
Much of Welcome to Me involves the rollout of Alice’s bizarre show, itself called Welcome to Me and made up of awkward silences, unfortunate cooking tips, disturbingly intimate role-playing situations, and any other random thing she wants to do. (Alice wants to neuter a dog on camera? Alice gets to neuter a dog on camera!) Of course, as so often happens with fictional bad ideas in motion pictures (see also: The Producers), Alice starts to find her audience, drawn as we are as viewers to the public spectacle of slow-motion human train wrecks.
It’s actually a fascinating conceit — giving us a comedy where the laughs catch in our throat, about a show in which the laughs catch in our throat, starring one of our foremost comic actresses playing semi-serious variations on her iconic funny characters. A maze of assumptions and counterassumptions, designed to leave us uncomforted and questioning. But Welcome to Me doesn’t quite know where to go with all this. The final act seems somehow both pat and unresolved, as if the film just ran out of ideas or was scared to take things in an open-ended direction. Kill the ending and make it a pilot, and this might have worked beautifully as a series — maybe even as the show depicted in the film, a meta-indulgence that’s part Colbert Report, part Oprah. I’d watch that. (Then I’d feel terrible about watching it. And then I’d watch it some more.) As a self-contained unit, however — as a movie — Welcome to Me feels curiously unformed.