With its central recurring tragicomic setpieces taking the form of a deeply strange local access talk show, the Kristen Wiig-starring Welcome to Me recalls SNL sketches where she’d play a televised oddball attention seeker. Unlike that series’ endless iterations of the cracked talk show concept, this film deepens the emotional terrain and provides context tying the laughs to melancholy and sadness. It’s a small character study brushing up against eccentric details, but never losing a central thread of depression and pain. It’s funny, but in the cringingly awkward way an unexpected inappropriate comment punctures empty moments. The movie is appealingly uneasy.
Never let it be said Wiig plays it safe with her choice of roles. Here she’s a woman with borderline personality disorder who goes off her meds after winning millions in the lottery. Against the advice of her therapist (Tim Robbins), best friend (Linda Cardellini), and parents (Joyce Hiller Piven and Jack Wallace), she cuts a check to a tiny nearby TV station, buying airtime on which she demands to star in her own daytime program. Oprah-obsessed, she imperfectly models her show on her idol’s. Clearly enjoying the cult-of-personality aspects above all else, she creates a show with no interviews or topics. Instead, she only discusses herself. It’s a warped reflection of any social media feed you might encounter, or any string of comments below any article, where you slowly realize the person behind the messages is deeply troubled.
The results are a program that’s a stilted mess of naked neurosis and narcissism, clearly the product of a disturbed mind, and strangely compelling because of it. She uses the airwaves as her own personal therapy session, much to the confusion of the station’s managers (Wes Bentley, James Marsden, and Joan Cusack), who continue cashing her checks, the only thing keeping them out of bankruptcy. The show, also called Welcome to Me, features a woman exorcising her past amongst rudimentary graphics, mannered reenactments by confused day players, stretches of silence, crying jags, cooking demonstrations, and rides across the stage in a swan boat. It’s a close, psychologically complex, cousin of the Tim & Eric aesthetic. Of course it would generate a cult following, from baffled channel surfers and an overeager grad student (Thomas Mann) hungry for more.
Her show, and the performance that comes with it, is the source of the movie’s appeal, crafting a painful vision of a woman for whom personal validation is inextricably tied to a desire to be on TV. (If that’s not a comment on our current media landscape, I don’t know what is.) Beyond it, director Shira Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurence have created a small world, but a consistently compelling one. Under bright, flat cinematography, Wiig shows off a range of hilarious and heartbreaking line readings which are always firmly rooted in a good sense of character, especially as the woman increasingly disappears up her own unmedicated ego in bizarre and elaborate episodes. Relationships beyond the studio setting are perfunctory indie dramedy fare turned slightly unsettled by the context. But they take a backseat to the show-within-the-movie. It builds in complexity and heart with each repetition, drawing difficult emotional reactions from what could’ve easily tipped over into stiff camp.
Often queasily hilarious, this story of a woman struggling with mental illness is still treated just soberly enough to not feel mean-spirited. Even when she is making self-destructive decisions, or exploited by those who should know better, her plight is treated with empathy and understanding. At best, it’s a comic character study so unusually sharp it draws tears, but retains a layer of artificiality keeping the proceedings vaguely humorous. Because we see the person behind the show, it’s both funny and painful. Like her cult following, I found myself hanging on every word while she’s on the air. The film doesn’t come to any sort of satisfying resolution and many subplots fall flat, but it’s Wiig’s memorable character, and the core of cringe comedy respectfully played, that sticks with me. The show’s warbling theme song still echoes in my brain.