Borderline Insulting, by David Bax
The first thing we see in Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me is an infomercial. It’s the first of many to come (Kristen Wiig’s lead character Alice is a big fan of them) but Piven starts on this particular one for a reason. The product being sold, called Perfect Polly, is a fake parakeet that swivels its head and chirps just like the real thing. Now you can have all the pleasantness of a pet bird with none of the mess! Piven means use Perfect Polly to foreshadow Alice’s disassociation and the avoidance behaviors that keep her from engaging with the difficulties of the real world. But, regrettably, she has also provided us with an easy metaphor for the film itself. Everything in it is manufactured beyond the point where it might have included honest emotions.
Alice, we quickly learn, is living with borderline personality disorder along with a number of other diagnoses. She has recently stopped taking her medication and her doctor (played by Tim Robbins) is very concerned. Once we get a look at her behavior, we understand why. She can’t get through a conversation even with her friends and family without first preparing written statements on potential topics. She spends most of her time in her darkened apartment watching and memorizing episodes of Oprah recorded on VHS tapes. Her way of striking up a chat with a stranger is to ask if there are any rapes in A Tale of Two Cities. Even before we really know her, it’s clear that winning $86 million in the lottery is bound to do more harm than good. That’s what happens, though, and Alice decides to use her money to start her own weekday TV show at the low-rent cable station that gets by on those infomercials she loves so much.
Signs of trouble in Piven’s screenplay start early when Alice’s best friend (Linda Cardellini), ex-husband (Alan Tudyk) and even her parents (Joyce Hiller Piven and Jack Wallace) remain essentially blank in the face of her increasingly troubling behavior. These people aren’t enablers, they’re doormats. At least the station owner, Rich (James Marsden), has the excuse of his failing business for allowing Alice to play out her delusions heedlessly.
Only Rich’s brother (Wes Bentley), voices the reservations the audience is likely to share once Alice’s show rolls into production. “I don’t feel great about where this is going,” he says. Neither should we, as Piven continually tends toward laughs punctuated with the occasional forced catharsis instead of taking Alice’s mental illness seriously.
At least with a cast this great (in addition to those already named, Joan Cusack and Jennifer Jason Leigh appear), those laughs are good ones. There are small, clever moments like Marsden introducing himself by saying, “I’m Rich,” to which new millionaire Alice guilelessly replies, “So am I.” And there is plenty of broad absurdity in Alice’s outlandish show segments, giving Wiig room to exercise her sketch comedy muscles.
By the end, though, when Alice must begin making amends to the people she wronged during her unchecked and well-funded manic episode, it becomes clear that Welcome to Me isn’t concerned at all with the topic of mental illness it seems to want credit for addressing. Piven flirts early on with the dangerous allure of Alice’s psychotic abandon but we come to understand that the screenplay by Eliot Laurence has employed borderline personality disorder to contrive conflict just so it could contrive its resolution. Now you can have all the fun of mental illness with none of the mess.