Welcome to Me Dir. Shira Piven

[Alchemy; 2015]

Styles: dark comedy, satire
Others: The Skeleton Twins, Network, EDTv, The Truman Show

Like its troubled protagonist, Shira Piven’s film Welcome to Me feels trapped in another era, grasping for relevance and meaning on the one hand, while acting oddly self-assured on the other. Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) suffers from a diagnosed case of Borderline Personality Disorder that seems to manifest itself in a kind of quirkiness. Her home is littered with VHS tapes of old Oprah Winfrey shows, a manual retro television set, and a mechanical answering machine. She wears bright colors and carries a parasol on her daily walk to the convenience store where she engages unsuspecting customers in bizarre conversation while waiting for her lottery ticket order. Then one day her ticket wins, in the kind of plot device that would be routine for an 80s comedy, but now plays out as too lo-fi for the mainstream. While most people with a cursory knowledge of statistics and probability would find this to be a near impossible stroke of luck, Klieg believes that her motivation to succeed earned her this money. Is this a swipe at the mentality of our contemporary mega-rich, who feel that their wealth is hard won even when it’s inherited? The idea remains half-formed, creeping around the margins of the film with so many of the other social observations Piven seems on the verge of making here.

If anything, tWelcome to Me never decides what it is: off-beat character comedy or wry media satire. There are shades of Network invoked by Klieg’s mentally ill talk show host gaining traction on the airwaves, but there are also jabs and feints at Klieg’s personal history being the source of her own troubles. Perhaps it’s just the nerves of a first-time director, but perhaps the filmmaker never quite knew what she wanted to do apart from allowing Wiig to flaunt her (admittedly considerable) range. However, as a serious character construct, Klieg could be assembled from a kind of indie film paint-by-numbers kit. Mental health issues? Check. Self-destructive behavior involving sex? Check. Solipsism to which she is oblivious but the audience is understands instantly? Sure, why not. Oh, and there’s a gay ex-husband who figures as a prominent character in her life, too.

In addition to starring Wiig, the film lists both Adam McKay and Will Ferrell among its producers; this Saturday Night Live pedigree is relevant mainly in that the titular TV series within the film plays out like one of the fabled sketches continually rejected by Lorne Michaels as being too weird for prime time. Klieg’s self-absorbed take on Oprah Winfrey feels like it is mocking something, but what that something could be is murky at best. The loopy earnestness of the meta-media invokes daytime talk shows, reality TV, and the general thirst for authenticity in the form of self-confessional content. While the first two present easy targets for parodic marksmen, the third might have offered an interesting avenue to explore. If the film intends to examine the effect of the latter, our culture certainly seems to be headed in that direction, with the advent of social media disintegrating filters on sharing personal details. Yet apart from one reference to a segment gaining popularity on YouTube, the film — again, like Klieg herself — appears trapped in a world of VHS tapes and rabbit ear TV sets. Without any larger awareness, Welcome to Me confines itself to the kind of inward-gazing it appears to condemn.

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