If there’s one unifying theme to this crazy, modern era that we live in, I’m willing to wager that it’s narcissism. Never before in the history of humanity has it been so easy to be as completely self-absorbed as it is now. Not only easy, mind you, but also immensely profitable: when average, normal, “every-day” people can clear millions of dollars in ad revenue via YouTube channels devoted to everything from watching them play video games to watching them taste-test sodas, well…it doesn’t really seem to get more “me”-oriented than that, does it? This isn’t even the same thing as watching celebrities shill products: this is watching your next-door-neighbor do the same thing with (presumably) none of the resulting name recognition.
Thanks to the continued explosion of social media, technological advancements, “reality TV” programs and “the 24-hour news cycle,” the unwashed masses now have as direct a pipeline to the cultural zeitgeist as the glitterati. One need not release the “next, great American novel” in order to vault to the top of the literary heap: one need only draw as many curious visitors as possible to their newest blog entry. Want to be a world-famous pop star? Forget paying your dues on the club circuit: start uploading as many videos as possible of you covering that Florence+the Machine song and wait for the offers to start rolling in. In the past, anyone who wanted to “break through” to mainstream fame had a much steeper uphill climb: nowadays, it’s never been easier to shout your opinions to the rafters and actually have someone pay attention. Warhol wanted to give everyone 15 minutes but, nowadays, is there anyone actually watching the clock?
Actor-turned-director Shira Piven tackles this particular phenomena head-on with her spectacular new film, Welcome to Me (2014), a bittersweet ode to wish-fulfillment, mental illness, friendship and self-interest that might just come to define this era in the same way that Easy Rider (1969) would come to define the transitional time between the ’60s and the ’70s. Across the span of 87 minutes, Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurence put us through the wringer, moving from extreme pathos to extreme hilarity with such stop-on-a-dime dynamics that the whole film becomes a masterclass in how to move your audience. In the process, Piven, Laurence and comedic wunderkind Kristen Wiig present us with one of the greatest cinematic creations of the 2000s, a performance that all but assures Wiig a shot at some genuine award-season gold: Alice Klieg. To paraphrase that most inimitable of comic book possums: we have seen Alice and she is us.
Opening with a quote from French philosopher Michel de Montaigne that might be the best modern mission-statement ever (“I study myself more than any other subject. That is my physics. That is my metaphysics.”), Welcome to Me wastes no time in plunging us into the day-to-day routine of Wiig’s Alice. We see her obsessively arranged house, everything organized by color, shape and whatever random internal qualifiers make sense to her. We witness Alice’s obsession with swans of every size, shape, make and model, along with the seemingly endless rows of videotaped TV shows that seem to fill every available bookshelf in her patently crammed home.
We see her recite every line from a taped episode of Oprah in the kind of off-hand manner that indicates she probably has every line from every Oprah episode memorized. We see her ask a complete stranger if there’s any “rape” in A Tale of Two Cities, a question which is as esoteric as it is mildly disturbing. We watch Alice as she goes about her lonely, oddly structured life, a ghost-like presence in a world that doesn’t quite make sense to her, a world that seems to have no more interest in her than it would any other roadside curiosity or “quirky” bag-lady. She doesn’t even seem to have any friends or casual acquaintances, aside from her mousy BFF, Gina (Freaks and Geeks’ Linda Cardellini). From our first glimpse of Alice, it’s painfully obvious that she has mental health issues, possibly more than one. She seems harmless, however, like so many others, so we just leave her alone to her own devices: what we don’t see can’t affect us, after all.
Alice, however, is destined for much grander things: in a modern era where everyone wants to be heard, why should she be any different? After winning a whopping $86 million lottery, Alice finally gets her chance: she’s going to make a difference in the biggest way possible, all while paying tribute to her greatest idol and influence, Oprah Winfrey. She approaches brothers/TV station owners Gabe (Wes Bentley) and Rich Ruskin (James Marsden) with a proposition: for $15 million, she’ll get her own TV talk show (100 two-hour episodes) and a chance to become as famous/watched/influential as Oprah. The subject? Why, Alice Klieg, of course, in all of her boundless glory.
From the jump, Alice’s show is as insane as expected. She’s wheeled out in a massive swan boat to a pre-recorded theme song that she, herself, croons. Her show features segments like the one where she cooks and consumes a meatloaf cake while the audience watches in confused silence or the numerous reenactments of various moments in her life (the one where she calls out old enemy Jordana Spangler ends with Alice bawling and screaming “Fuck you to death, Jordana!”as the crew frantically cuts to commercial). “Why doesn’t it look like Oprah,” Alice tearfully asks, only to be given the only sensible answer: “Because you ate a cake made out of meat and cried?”
The whole thing is a mess, obviously, the kind of talk show you might expect from someone who proudly discusses her borderline personality disorder as if it were a gluten allergy. It’s not like Alice isn’t seeking professional help, after all: she was happily seeing shrink Daryl Moffet (Tim Robbins) before she decided to quit her meds and regulate her moods with string cheese (always sound medical advice). Now that she’s finally getting what she most wants out of life, she’s happy enough to mitigate the need for mood stabilizers: living well, as always, is its own reward.
But the show is still a mess. Program director Dawn (Joan Cusack) thinks that Alice is a loose cannon waiting to go off, Rich thinks she’s the answer to all of his financial woes, Gabe isn’t quite sure what to make of her (but he kind of thinks he’s falling in love, at least a little bit) and Gina is almost super-humanly supportive, even as Alice seems openly dismissive of anything that doesn’t have to do with her. Hell, Gina even uproots her everyday routine in order to move into a reservation casino with Alice and several dogs…that’s friendship, ladies and gentlemen, no two ways about it!
In order to make her show “better,” Alice throws more and more money at it, all while Rich rubs his hands together and salivates like Scrooge McDuck at an estate sale. And then, of course, the expectedly unexpected happens: “Welcome to Me” starts to gain a following. Before she knows it, Alice has a full studio audience, her ratings are up and she even has her own super-fan, in the person of Rainer (Thomas Mann), an odd man-child who studies Alice in college and wants her show to air five times a week rather than once: he really hates to wait, after all.
And then, of course, the other shoe drops, like an airborne piano through a skylight: as Alice’s show gets bigger and she gets more of a platform, she becomes increasingly unstable and problems begin to crop up everywhere. Alice’s talk show becomes bigger, stranger and more controversial, as each and every whim from her extremely fertile imagination is given life, for better or worse (usually the latter), right through to her decision to spay and neuter dogs on-camera…with Alice actually performing the procedures.
As our erstwhile hero is battered about by any number of external (and internal) forces, Alice finds herself standing on the precipice of the most important, painful decision she’s ever made: embrace the anonymity of “normal” life and give up on her dreams or boldly forge her own path, disregarding the desires, wishes and feelings of all those around her in order to create a more complete version of herself. After all, as the lyrics from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Happy Song” inform us on the soundtrack, “if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” Like all of us, Alice has a lot of dreams…will she have what it takes to make them come true?
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: Welcome to Me is a helluva film, easily one of the year’s best (thus far, at least). Piven, who has only one other directorial effort in her background (2011’s Fully Loaded, which she also co-wrote) is a sure hand with the material, guiding the film (and audience) through its/our paces with an exceptional amount of subtlety and skill. There are plenty of big, laugh-out-loud moments in Eliot Laurence’s excellent screenplay, no doubt about it, but some of the most effective parts of the film are also the simplest, quietest and most subliminal: the powerful scene where we see Alice framed within the solitude (and virtual imprisonment) of her own home…the heartbreaking look on Gina’s face when she sees her secrets laid bare before a television audience…the impossibly beautiful, uplifting moment where we finally see how much faith the crew actually has in Alice…these would be genuinely impactful moments in any film but hit especially hard here.
Indeed, one of Welcome to Me’s greatest strengths is its ability to make us laugh like idiots one minute (the scene where Alice tries to push an ornery dog into a carrier is absolutely sublime) while ripping our hearts out the next (Alice’s “dark night of the soul” moment, in the casino, has to be one of the rawest, most painful and devastating scenes I’ve seen all year and that’s saying quite a lot). Like the very best films, Welcome to Me wants to entertain us but it also wants to make us think: think about the strangers we pass by every day, think about the world around us, think about our own hopes, fears, dreams and inadequacies. Piven isn’t interested in easy, dumb laughs, although there’s still kneeslappers aplenty here: she knows that you can’t have comedy without tragedy and Welcome to Me is tragic, in the very best way possible.
On the technical side, Welcome to Me packs plenty of firepower behind the scenes. Veteran cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards’ resume reads like a virtual ‘who’s who’ of some of the most iconic films of the ’90s (My Own Private Idaho (1991), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), Kids (1995), Cop Land (1997) and Clay Pigeons (1998), to name but a few) and he presents some immaculately framed, beautifully composed shots here. There’s an almost fairy tale quality to the film’s narrative that’s handily echoed by Edward’s camerawork.
We also get an appropriately whimsical, well-utilized score by David Robbins, the composer behind films as far-flung as Bob Roberts (1992), Dead Man Walking (1995) and Cradle Will Rock (1999). The score is never obvious and manages to downplay clumsy emotional cues in favor of mood-setting that always feels organic, especially in regards to Alice’s wacky TV show. Between the narrative, cinematography and score, Welcome to Me has a complete singularity of vision that reminded me of another of my favorite films of the year, Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices (2014): both films utilize the lush visuals of someone like Wes Anderson, while tweaking them in some pretty impressive ways.
Then, of course, there’s that cast…I mean, seriously…get a load of this mob of unduly talented performers: Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wes Bentley, Thomas Mann, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Alan Tudyk, Loretta Devine, Jack Wallace…that, friends and neighbors, is how you cast your film! Regardless of the amount of screen-time, each and every member of the cast comes together to form an absolutely unbeatable ensemble. I hate to pull out the “Wes Anderson” card, again, but there’s certainly a similarity between his high-octane casts and Welcome to Me’s featured players. Hell, Cusack and Cardellini turn in two of the year’s brightest performances and neither of them has a tenth of Wiig’s screen time.
The glittering, dazzling star on the top of this particular tree, however, is the one and only Kristen Wiig. While she’s been a reliably great comic presence since her formative years on SNL, Welcome to Me marks a huge leap forward as far as her dramatic performances go. To not put too fine a point on it, Wiig is absolutely flawless as Alice: this is the kind of organic, well-rounded and utterly human performance that deserves to be lauded by every awards organization under the sun. There are no seams, no notion of where the actor ends and the character begins: like Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the similarly amazing Faults (2014), Wiig isn’t playing Alice…she IS Alice, at least for the 90 minutes that we spend we her.
Whether she’s bawling uncontrollably, propositioning Rainer in the most awkward way possible, throwing a temper tantrum after she gets cut-off for mentioning “masturbation” on-air or sweetly making amends to everyone she’s wronged, Wiig’s Alice is the undisputed master of this particular universe, the sun around which everyone else orbits. Fitting, of course, since the film is all about the eternal struggle for self-validation and personal worth: this is a film about Alice and Wiig towers over the proceedings like the Colossus of Rhodes. Mark my words: Welcome to Me is where Wiig picks up the dramedy mantle dropped by the recently departed Robin Williams and it fits her like it was tailor-made.
Ultimately, the true mark of an unforgettable film is how hard it hits you: from the first minute to the last, Welcome to Me was like a never-ending barrage of body blows, albeit in the best way possible. I’m not ashamed to admit that the final 10 minutes turned me into a bit of a mess: the film’s payoff is undeniably bittersweet but there’s a life-affirming quality to it that’s anything but depressing. Throughout the film, Alice only really wants one thing: to be just like her idol, Oprah Winfrey. While she tries mightily (and fails wretchedly) to emulate her TV show, there is one aspect of her hero that Alice manages to internalize: in the same way that Winfrey derived joy from giving her audience things and helping them, so, too, does Alice learn that the real value of her platform is in her ability to make a difference in the lives of others. Alice’s show is called “Welcome to Me” but, in the end, it could just as easily be called “Welcome to Us.”
As we continue to find new and improved ways to make our own, personal impacts in an increasingly chaotic, cluttered world, it might help to keep one thing in mind: we may all have our own stories, our own triumphs, despairs, victories and losses but, in the end, they’re all part of the same autobiography…the story of humanity, in all its beautiful, terrible, wonderful and hideous forms. We may want to tell our own stories but, in the end, it’s all part of the same narrative. Like Alice, all we can do is strive for happiness and ride our swan boats into the horizon.