Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) lives alone in a Palm Desert apartment that hasn’t seen much daylight or modernization since the 1990s. She has a cordless phone and an answering machine, full of messages from her therapist (Tim Robbins) urging her to pick up the medication that controls her Borderline Personality Disorder. Instead of following his orders, Alice self-medicates by ingesting low-glucose foods and re-watching and reciting the VHS recordings of Oprah that line her bookshelves. Her habits are compulsive (Alice hasn’t shut her TV off in 11 years), but her social interactions are strange and impulsive: Out on a walk in a sundress and fanny pack, she asks a passerby “if there was a rape in A Tale of Two Cities.” Alice seems to live out of time, in a bruised but resolutely narcissistic bubble. After winning $86 million in the California state lottery, she doesn’t foresee an opportunity to start anew, just a long-overdue chance to share the wonder of herself with millions on daytime television.
Directed by Shira Piven, Welcome to Me is nearly as brazen and confident as its protagonist. The film rejects a fawning (or even particularly detailed) account of mental illness in favor of a plunge into the deep end of Alice’s bottomless ego. After fortune strikes her, Alice reads a “prepared statement” to her few friends and family, telling them, “You can have what I have if you really believe in it.” They respond by chanting, “New life! New life!” but Alice has other designs for her fortune. After storming the set of an infomercial hosted by a handsome huckster (Wes Bentley) and transfixing its producers (James Marsden, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh) with a bizarre confessional monologue, Alice purchases their resources (and their hesitant compliance) with a check for $15 million, emerging with a 100-episode deal for her titular afternoon show.
Both Eliot Laurence’s barbed script and Piven’s assured direction keep a discomfiting, relentless focus on Alice’s ambitions to construct the ultimate shrine to her tortured persona. Welcome to Me, the show, begins with cable-access production values and segments that devolve into endurance art (Alice prepares a “meatloaf cake with sweet-potato icing,” then eats it quietly for five minutes), but an extra infusion of cash only improves the sets and production values. With a soundtrack of warped covers of inspirational songs like “Catch a Falling Star,” the film forthrightly and rather thrillingly gives the lie to the notion of personal reinvention: Alice’s upgraded set is an exact replica of her apartment, and much of her show still consists of hilarious reenactments of petty past dramas, which Alice seems to be auditioning as formative psychic traumas. Meanwhile, she beds Bentley’s sex addict, becomes a minor cause celebre, and finally loses the goodwill of a longtime friend (Linda Cardellini).
Rather than a victim of family inattention or a clumsy mental healthcare system (Alice is, notably and admirably, surrounded by relatively steadfast friends and professionals), she’s a woman duped by a culture that suggests self-belief is the only true panacea. Beneath her acts of character assassination, Piven and Wiig suggest a searching in Alice that makes her both palatable and sympathetic. (The film only seems to look down on her when using her penchant to mispronounce words as a crutch for additional, unnecessary laughs.) Throughout the film, Wiig recalls some of her more famous Saturday Night Live characters in being flat of affect yet frayed of nerve, and Welcome to Me plays like a weirdly potent expansion of one of those recurring sketches. Wiig affords Alice with an occasionally startling range of false confidence and emotional vulnerability: Frequently set adrift in the film’s widescreen frames, Alice actively struggles to articulate who she was, who she is, and who she wants to be all at once. By the end of Welcome to Me, her inevitable failures rather uneasily mirror our own.