Scheduled for release in the UK later this month, this film is both directed and written by relative newcomers. It’s a breakthrough for both; the script is daring and darkly funny, and deals with some difficult material without flinching.
There have been countless movies made with mental illness as the theme: those which romanticised the mentally ill, such as Harvey or The Fisher King; which took a clinical, documentary approach, like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden; or which treated it as a source of horror, like Psycho, Misery, or Silence of the Lambs. More recent films have tried to approach mental health realistically and allowing for the subjects’ dignity. The very popular Silver Linings Playbook, for example, treated the mentally ill as individuals rather than mere diagnoses; but still suffered from a tendency to be sentimental about its’ characters struggles with psychiatric disorders.
Relatively few attempts have been made to make comedies about mental illness. Those that exist, such as What About Bob? have found it necessary to make the mentally unsound character, and his condition, as innocuous as possible, and have avoided some of the more unpleasant or frightening, yet potentially funny, aspects of the situation. Welcome To Me does its part to fill that gap.
Kristen Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a young woman diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She has a dissatisfying life which centres on television and an unhealthy level of fascination with Oprah Winfrey. Her social contacts are limited to her one close friend since childhood, Gina (Linda Cardellini), her parents and ex-husband, and her psychiatrist. It is quickly established that Alice is a person with terrible social skills and prone to bad personal decisions. She has an unsteady grip on reality and uses television as a model for real life behaviour.
Refreshingly, Welcome To Me does not fall into the common practice in such movies, of having the mentally ill person recover because he or she has met the right person, taken on the right attitude, or simply because enough time has passed. Even films which attempt complete realism on the subject sometimes lapse into this tendency. Alice, while she goes through many personal epiphanies and changes for the better, is always a person with an illness that requires management. Several scenes even gently mock the feel-good attitude common in material about the mentally ill: we see Alice regularly explaining that she is “taking charge of her condition” or “managing her moods with a high-protein lifestyle,” and realise that she is indulging in magical thinking.
Just after deciding to stop taking her psychiatric medications, Alice’s situation changes when she wins the state lottery: $86 million. She spends some of the money in random and illogical ways, including moving from her apartment to a hotel attached to a casino. Then, being called on stage to volunteer for a live infomercial inspires her to fulfill her dream of having her own television show. She approaches a small television station, proposing a show “like Oprah’s” but without guests and with only one topic: herself. On the verge of bankruptcy, the station agrees to produce the show, and Alice pays them $15 million for a series of episodes.
As Alice prepares her programme, the station staff argue. The station’s co-owner, Rich Ruskin (James Marsden) only cares about the money; his brother and partner Gabe (Wes Bentley) is concerned about the ethics of exploiting someone in Alice’s condition; and producer Dawn Hurley (Joan Cusack) is put off by Alice’s weirdness but willing to overlook it for the sake of solvency. As they work together, Alice and Gabe make an unexpected emotional connection, and begin an affair.
The show, called Welcome To Me, goes on the air, and is every bit as bizarre as Alice’s plans suggested it would be. She enters on a giant swan boat, and spends two hours talking about herself, demonstrating the cooking of foods she believes will cure mental illness, and staging re-enactments of unpleasant scenes from her adolescence, all the while imperfectly imitating the mannerisms of popular television personalities. Alice’s show is beyond horrible, but in a highly entertaining way; it is a painfully hilarious take on common TV conventions, as well as on Alice’s peculiar world view.
In a situation reminiscent of the 1976 film Network, the show unexpectedly gains a large following, some viewers enjoying the oddness for its own sake, others convinced that Alice is an avant-garde genius doing the show as an edgy satire.
For a while, Alice is delighted with her new life as a minor star. However, her illness continues to intrude on her determined efforts to make the show a success. She has furious outbursts on camera, and her choices of material become ever stranger and harder to defend. When Welcome To Me begins to attract lawsuits and Alice’s dream starts to crumble, she goes into an emotional collapse, calls her long-neglected psychiatrist, and is placed in hospital and back on her medication.
As a comedy, Welcome To Me manages to walk the fine line between ridiculing a mentally ill person, and acknowledging that there are funny aspects to her situation, as there are to any situation, however dire. The humour comes from many sources, not just from Alice’s condition. Her parents, with their relentlessly cheerful attitude of endurance in the face of every new shock from their daughter, are amusing minor characters, as is her long-suffering psychiatrist. The television station staff, bracing themselves for Alice’s unpredictable actions on camera, are a source of ongoing humour as well – particularly Joan Cusack as the hands-on who gamely plays along no matter how weird things get. But the film doesn’t flinch from finding Alice herself, her delusional thinking, self-sabotage, and rationalisation of every horrible choice, funny. The episodes of her TV show are hilariously bad, sending up television itself, but also, to some extent, laughing at Alice’s outlandish idea of what constitutes entertainment.
The film goes a step further: it holds Alice accountable, not for her condition, but for her unkindness and selfishness, making a distinction between the two and allowing that even a mentally ill person has ethical obligations. She is ultimately made to face how much she has hurt people who care for her, first when she cheats on Gabe because she is flattered by an admiring interviewer who takes her programme for experimental art; when she broadcasts her psychiatrist’s session with her on an episode of her show without his knowledge; and again when she ignores her one close friend, Gina, at a time of need because Alice’s fame has taken up all her attention.
On release from the hospital, Alice does one final show in which she thanks people who have helped her and apologises for her lapses. The finale, in spite of its positive theme, is no less bizarre than the other episodes. The script here walks another fine line, giving Alice the conventional media farewell, full of cheap and contrived emotion; but by making it a satire of itself allows us to enjoy Alice’s genuine change of heart without feeling manipulated.
The film ends on a simple but positive note, when Alice, for the first time in eleven years, turns off the television.
Kristen Wiig’s performance is what makes this film work. She captures the ridiculous aspects of Alice’s behaviour as well as the pathos; and makes her not merely the butt of jokes, but a real person with real problems. Her comic timing is perfect throughout. The effort to make Welcome To Me both a broad comedy, and a realistic examination of mental illness, perhaps keeps it from being as effective as it might have been; but overall it is an enjoyable movie with a unique take.