“Welcome To Me” opens Friday at Star Cinema. R, 1:27, four stars out of four.
Every generation gets the “Network” it deserves. For ours, obsessed with self-actualization, fame and personal branding, we get the disturbingly funny satire “Welcome To Me.”
Written by Eliot Lawrence and directed by Shira Piven, “Welcome to Me” is a dare-you-to-look-away comedy that gets darker and funnier with every frame. It’s also perfectly designed for its star, Kristen Wiig, who specializes in making us laugh and cringe at (and maybe feel for) characters sunk deep into their own self-delusions.
She pushes that unhealthy solipsism about as far as it can go by playing Alice Krieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder who lives in a tiny apartment full of swan figurines and piles of VHS tapes containing old “Oprah” episodes, which she can recite by heart. She’s hungry to be noticed, and speaks in the empty buzzspeak of talk shows and press conferences to her shrink (Tim Robbins) and her friend (Linda Cardellini), reading from prepared statements.
Then Alice wins $86 million in the lottery, and knows exactly what she wants to do with it — buy her own talk show. She goes to a low-rent local cable company called New Vibrance and writes a check for $15 million. She wants a live two-hour show every week where she can host segments like “Lucky Foods” and “Smelling Things Before They Happen,” and hire actors to re-enact painful moments from her life. “Oh, and I want to come in on a swan boat,” she insists.
While the show’s executive producers (Joan Cusack and Jennifer Jason Leigh) are horrified at the thought of giving an emotionally damaged woman free rein on camera, the check clears, and that’s good enough for station owner James Marsden. The show is a can’t-look-away disaster, as Alice stiffly copies the hand gestures and painted-on smile she’s seen on TV as she explains her personal manias for the live studio audience, bakes an iced meatloaf cake, or starts screaming and crying at the re-enactors as the show’s cheery theme music plays on.
But no matter — when Alice sees the little red light on the camera go on, she knows she’s home. “Welcome To Me” gathers a fan base of sorts, and Alice presses for bigger budgets and crazier ideas — a dog-neutering montage set to The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” has to be the strangest thing I’ve seen in a movie this year.
“Welcome To Me” becomes both a riotous comedy and sort of a horror movie, as the station’s perplexed staff (including Wes Bentley as Marsden’s kindly brother) becomes hostages to Alice’s obsession. And — you can’t argue — she does make for good TV.
Piven dresses this media nightmare in cheery Southern California pastels and bright sunlight that only accentuate the emotional darkness of Alice and her story. Laurence’s screenplay echoes great ’70s satires like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” or Michael Ritchie’s “Smile,” twisting the American dream upside down and showing us what lurks beneath.
And Wiig is brilliant and truly fearless. As weird and even diva-like as Alice gets, Wiig never loses a grip on her humanity, making her a heartbreaking example of someone using the lessons she’s learned from daytime talk shows — all the wrong lessons — to try and live her best life, as Oprah might say. The scary question is whether this is the best life she can live.