VOD film review: Welcome To Me
Mark Harrison | On 24, Mar 2016
Director: Shira Piven
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, James Marsden
Watch Welcome to Me online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Sky Store / Curzon Home Cinema / Google Play
Non-scripted television has become something of a pop culture phenomenon in the last couple of decades. Now, there’s more than you could follow, even if you wanted to – how many Kardashians can you reasonably be expected to keep up with? As anticipated in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, this kind of TV has become more about ratings and the cult of personality than actual substance. Accordingly, there’s no shortage of satire based on the current state of celebrity, but even with reality TV on so many channels, it’s nice to be flabbergasted by something like Welcome To Me every once in a while.
Directed by Shira Piven and produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, the film is all about Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig), an unemployed TV fanatic who has borderline personality disorder. She spends her days watching a telly that hasn’t been switched off in 11 years, miming along with taped Oprah Winfrey episodes and dreaming of hosting her own talk show.
Opportunity knocks when she wins $86 million on the lottery and she decides to sink a sixth of her winnings into the cash-strapped cable infomercial channel New Vibrance for 100 episodes of her own show, titled Welcome To Me. The subject? Herself, her opinions and her re-enactments of historical slights (whether real or imagined, it’s tricky to say) that she can’t let go. Brothers and co-owners Rich (Marsden) and Gabe (Bentley) are all too happy to take her money, but Alice’s visions of Oprah-tude don’t necessarily chime with reality.
Opening with a quote by Michel de Montaigne – “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my physics. That is my metaphysics.” – the Renaissance philosopher who popularised the essay and was criticised for lapsing into anecdotal tangents in his work, the film sets its sights high. What follows is the ultimate character study with a fiercely weird and satirical bite.
It could be viewed as a distant companion piece to Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, which focused more on solipsism and narcissism than mental health, but it has more in common with any number of broader comedies about man-children that Ferrell and McKay have previously backed. It’s indie through and through, which allows it to be much darker and funnier than a more mainstream film, but the main attraction is Wiig.
She’s fantastic here, completely inhabiting her character and getting loads of laughs without ever mugging or gurning. Some have criticised the film’s depiction of mental illness, but Alice is never the butt of the joke and Wiig’s uncommon emotional intelligence as a performer shines through. It’s her best performance yet, precisely because she’s so funny and so sympathetic all at the same time.
Alice’s unpredictability leads to some howlingly bad segments on her show and these are marvellously well observed by Piven – they don’t feel staged for the purpose of parody, but like genuine clips of bad cable TV that you might stumble across online. Marsden projects dollar signs in his eyes as he nods through every weird new extreme – New Vibrance’s ever-lowering standards, and therefore those of TV in general, are in the comedic crosshairs, rather than the person they’re exploiting.
In an age of viral videos, some writers may have been tempted to make the stakes bigger, but with YouTube just sitting there, Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurence keep it to the struggling infomercial channel, which puts a ceiling on how big the film can get, keeping it focused on the magnitude of Alice’s unpredictable personality. The crucial reality check about her cult success comes when Rich proudly informs her that she’s even more watched than The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, except he’s talking about a re-run rather than the ratings smash hit it was when it was still going.
There are a lot of strong performances in the supporting cast; from Linda Cardellini’s long-suffering best friend to Wes Bentley’s concerned love interest; Tim Robbins’ stoic psychiatrist to the ethically exasperated producers, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Joan Cusack; but it’s understandable that they’re all somewhat lost in the orbit of Wiig’s powerhouse performance. It rounds the film out well and Laurence’s script gives each of them enough with which to make an impression and have a purpose, especially effective in Alan Tudyk’s early, telling cameo as Alice’s gay ex-husband.
As a character study, it’s hard to fault Welcome To Me. It’s hardly on the level of Network for satire, nor does it match something like Anchorman for laughs, but despite having antecedents in each of them, it’s a uniquely weird and well observed little gem. Celebrity culture is in the pits right now, but thanks to a cracking script and a truly astonishing performance by Wiig, this low-key indie dramedy is well above it.
Welcome to Me is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.