Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review: "Welcome to Me"

Director: Shira Piven
Runtime: 88 minutes

Despite a fun set-up, Shira Piven's Welcome to Me is so totally linked to its central performance that it has little room to accomplish much else. Thankfully, star Kristen Wiig, in the latest of a recent string of indie releases, owns this offbeat dramedy from top to bottom. Piven's trim character study is so intensely focused on Wiig's Alice Klieg that there's little breathing room for anyone else. In fact, there's so little to be found in Welcome to Me outside of Wiig's performance, that the film often feels like nothing more than a performance showcase. Wiig offers some stellar comedic and dramatic acting, but the script's character-based tunnel vision prevents the project as a whole from being more than a gently moving trifle. 

Like any normal person, Alice is stunned when she wins the local lottery of $86 million. Yet once we get a look at Alice's cramped apartment, it's clear that she's far from your average American struggling to get by (and hoping for a miracle). Not only is Alice bi-polar, she's also messing around with the meds prescribed by her doctor (Tim Robbins). An Oprah-worshipping shut-in, Alice decides that there's only one thing she really wants to use her new fortune for: a talk show built around herself. Understandably, she's met with incredulous looks when she proposes the idea to the staff of the local TV station (Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh). The lone exception is Rich (James Marsden), the money-hungry head of the station, who gladly accepts check after check from Alice while his guilt-ridden brother/TV host Gabe (Wes Bentley) watches. 

Outside of the character-based elements, Welcome to Me's second priority is clearly the way society portrays (and/or exploits) those with mental illnesses. Yet Eliot Laurence's tight (almost too tight) script never branches out further than the basic idea that such exploitation A) exists and B) isn't very nice. Especially given the recent treatment of celebrities with mental illness, these themes couldn't be more ripe for exploration. If the world of Network predicted the rise of sadomasochistic, morally uncomfortable TV content, then Welcome to Me simply drops us into that world long after the prophecy has come to pass.

Whether or not you find this to be a major issue will likely come down to how you respond to Alice and Wiig's performance. Even with the aforementioned themes present, Alice is Laurence and Piven's #1 priority by a gigantic margin. And, on that subject, the film more than gets the job done. Laurence has created a true original of a character, one who is never defined strictly by her diagnosis. And Wiig, who's been stretching her acting muscles recently, does some really wonderful work here that continues to prove her worth as convincing actress, regardless of genre. 

The most obvious challenge with a film like Welcome to Me comes down to tone, and Piven's capturing of Laurence's writing is part of what keeps one involved with this increasingly sad character study. Wiig, meanwhile, has to contain the film's variations in tone without coming across as forced, and she does so beautifully. Funny, heartbreaking, and weird, it's a performance that feels truly human, and not like a checklist of mental health symptoms. 

Other characters may not get anywhere near the depth afforded to Alice, but Piven's film is filled with small gems from the talented ensemble. Bentley and Marsden are perfectly matched as the polar opposite brothers, the former of whom eventually earns Alice's romantic attention. Bentley's character is the most similar to Alice, and where others watch confusion and embarrassment, he watches with great empathy. Cusack is good for a handful of exasperated reaction shots, as is Leigh (though the latter's role is basically pointless). 

The most meaningful supporting performance comes from Linda Cardellini as Alice's best friend Gina. Of all of the relationships featured in Welcome to Me, this is the one that would have been worthy of a few extra scenes. Though Alice has her own problems, she can be obsessed with herself to the point where she drives others away. This dynamic comes through the clearest with Gina, though some of the finale's impact is undercut by Gina's marginalization throughout the story. With more focus on the Gina/Alice dynamic, which goes back to their childhoods, more of Welcome to Me could have truly lingered. Instead, it's only Alice who really stays with you. Not surprising, as it's probably what she would've wanted. 

Grade: B-

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