Film has a long and fairly distinguished history of satirizing the insidious allure of televised celebrity — Being There, King of Comedy and To Die For come immediately to mind — and yet few films to date have captured the way our newly acquired addiction to selfies and social media is elevating narcissism to a collective pathology.
In Welcome to Me, a new dark comedy directed by Shira Piven, Kristen Wiig stars as Alice, a woman with borderline personality disorder who hits the lottery for $87 million, gets off her meds and — channeling her love of all things Oprah — decides to buy her own talk show.
But unlike Oprah, whose monstrous narcissism hides behind a glittery sheen of benevolence, Alice wants her show to be about nothing but her — including her petty resentments (or, as Alice puts it in a show segment, “Who’s a cunt?”), her fights with her mom, her latest attempts to self-medicate through food. Her on-air revelations are by turns carnal and banal, grotesque and infantile, piquant and pissy. Like any trainwreck, the spectacle of Alice gains an audience.
As Alice’s illness tightens its grip, she becomes increasingly unhinged and self-absorbed, thereby alienating everyone around her, including her best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini) and her co-producer and “boyfriend,” Gabe (Wes Bentley), until it all explodes in a moment of anguish.
Beneath all this absurdist black comedy, the film plays out as a modern morality tale that makes literal our sickness for public self-regard in the character of Alice, whose compulsion to share — to shamelessly indulge a narrative of victimization — ends up scorching her, again literally. If the ideas driving the film are obvious to anyone paying attention these days, their treatment is given a sharp edge by screenwriter Eliot Laurence, who brings a wry, snarky sensibility to the dialogue.
In the end, however, it is Wiig who brings it all together, elevating an otherwise good film into something truly fine. Wiig is a force of nature, and she’s found perhaps the most apt vehicle yet for her considerable talents in Welcome to Me. Her Alice is at once sexy and repulsive, a fascinating monster seeking anonymous cuddles. As an actress, Wiig is a master of the adorable grotesque, capable of balancing unattractive emotions and unappealing motives with a subterranean vulnerability that glimmers behind her weathered smirk. This film taps that vulnerability, and the results are unsettling.
Welcome to Me opens Friday, May 15, Bijou Metro.