It’s been fascinating to see how little Kristen Wiig seems to care about becoming Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers. She’s probably the most successful SNL star since Tina Fey and Amy Poehler—maybe since Will Ferrell if you stick to the movies—yet her after Bridesmaids, it was her costar (and frequent SNL host) Melissa McCarthy who really made a grab for broad-comedy dominance. Wiig seems to appear only in big comedy projects as, get this, a lark: she played young Lucille Bluth in the fourth season of Arrested Development, Steve Carell’s love interest in Anchorman 2, and various cartoon characters in both movies and TV. Instead, she’s been spending her post-Bridesmaids capital on indies movies like Girl Most Likely, Hateship Loveship, and The Skeleton Twins, often working with female filmmakers and even sadder characters than the one that broke her out of SNL mode.
In that sense, Welcome to Me, which opens today, feels like the movie that Wiig has been trying to make for the past three or four years: she plays an eccentric, off-balance woman of modest means, thrust into oddball circumstances (in this case when she wins an enormous lottery prize and decides to spend it on assembling her own talk show; double check), in a film directed by a woman (check: Shira Piven, Jeremy’s sister and also Adam McKay’s wife). The difference here is Welcome to Me is more than a slightly strange curiosity that doesn’t quite work: it’s a very strange curiosity that works almost shockingly well.
Wiig’s Alice Klieg isn’t just a quirky, awkward outcast; she has borderline personality disorder (and walks through the list of what her mental health condition has been called over the years). She nurses, if not delusions of grandeur, certainly a fantastical sense of social mores; when she wins the lottery, and on several subsequent occasions, she announces that she will “read from a prepared statement.” The old television set in her apartment is always on; she sometimes uses it to rewatch old episodes of Oprah, and generally behaves like someone who has absorbed lots of off-hours TV. She and her best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini) attend the taping of an infomercial hosted by Gabe (Wes Bentley), a specialty of the TV station run by Gabe’s brother Rich (James Marsden). When Alice suggests her own show and produces a viable check for $15 million, they’re desperate enough to take it.
A mentally imbalanced woman vanity-producing her own talk show about whatever comes to her head—”my hopes, my dreams, what I like to eat, who I think is a cunt”—sounds, actually, like a Saturday Night Live sketch. Admittedly, there’s a fine line between laughing at the movie and laughing at this character—and watching Welcome to Me, I did laugh, often very hard (a scene featuring Alice recording her theme song in the background of the frame made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen at a movie this year). But I don’t think the movie was goading me into feeling superior to Alice; Wiig, Piven, and screenwriter Eliot Laurence just have a sure sense of the glorious absurdity of the movie’s premise—and the logistics of a talk show staged as if happening within a strange person’s brain. Alice’s re-enactments of past slights and embarrassments are funny and sometimes cringe-inducing, but also a little heartbreaking. The material makes the crucial leap from something that is funny in theory to something that is, in its vaguely dreamlike way, believable in practice. It follows the familiar narrative of a quasi-nobody underdog becoming rich and famous, with the crucial what-if of it happening to someone who is unstable.
The movie assembles too many characters, as if a bunch of big stars wanted in and Piven couldn’t in good conscience tell any of them no; Jennifer Jason Leigh in particular, playing a producer at the TV network, barely has any lines before she quits the show in disgust, and Cardellini doesn’t always have enough to do (the idea of Welcome to Me being about the friendship between Alice and Gina, as it seems to float briefly, rings false—smartly so, even). But this feels like the clearest expression of Wiig’s interests since Bridesmaids: a dramedy with the big, surprising laughs of a Tim and Eric enterprise but with actual thoughts about the Oprah cult of personal healing. Wiig didn’t always do her best work on SNL; her recurring characters, in particular, were often built on quirks and tics that were distinct but chip. In Welcome to Me, she burrows deep inside a sketch-like idea and comes up with one her funniest, most affecting characters so far.