“Come on, not the crazy bitch.” — Dawn Hurley (Joan Cusack) in “Welcome to Me”
Shira Piven's “Welcome to Me” has been in limited theaters and on iTunes since the first of the month, and it's racked up praise from a number of critics, including Variety's Justin Chang (“A strange and often startlingly inspired media/mental-illness comedy”) and the New York Times' A.O. Scott (“Defies expectations and easy categorization, forgoing obvious laughs and cheap emotional payoffs in favor of something much odder and more interesting”). Given that this is one of the few movies ever to specifically name Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as the cause of its lead character's troubles, I wanted to be on board with it. I really, really wanted to be.
I'm no BPD expert, but I've tried my best to educate myself on what is an extremely complex, destructive, deadly (the suicide rate of patients has been estimated as high as 10 percent) and often difficult-to-treat mental illness since the diagnosis of an immediate family member nearly three years ago. But while “Welcome to Me” gets some facets of the disorder right, I was bothered less by the specifics of its depiction than by the way its central character was rendered as a blank-eyed nonentity.
“Welcome to Me” centers on Alice Klieg (Wiig), a BPD-diagnosed woman living alone in an apartment littered with rubber-banded stacks of lottery tickets, which she buys using the government assistance she subsists on. Though generally conceived as a numb, monotone, Oprah-obsessed phantom prone to communicating with her loved ones and increasingly-frustrated psychiatrist (Tim Robbins) via “prepared statements,” she occasionally betrays her deep-seated pain by flying into destructive rages and/or crying fits instigated by real and imagined slights. Her inner demons are subsequently given a bigger platform when she wins $86 million in the state lottery and uses the funds to mount her own TV talk show, in which she discusses a single topic: herself.
I don't expect a Hollywood movie to get every possible thing right about a complicated mental disorder, which, like every illness, is exhibited differently depending on the sufferer. And it's not that it doesn't get anything right. One facet the movie accurately depicts — albeit in often overly broad terms — is its dramatization of Alice's extreme emotional volatility, expressed in the DSM-V as “affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).”
It also does a solid job of portraying Alice's rocky relationships with her closest friends and family, including her best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini); gay ex-husband Ted (Alan Tudyk); and befuddled parents (Joyce Hiller Piven and Jack Wallace). Indeed, one of the most pertinent aspects of BPD is the heavy toll it exacts on families, expressed symptomatically as “a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.” (DSM-V)
And I would be remiss not to mention that “Welcome to Me's” central premise — BPD-afflicted woman blows $15 million of her $86 million lottery winnings on a TV show about herself — ties in neatly with one of the disorder's major symptoms: “Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).” (DSM-V) There are, of course, narcissistic traits implicit in Alice's specific mode of impulsivity, which tracks with statistics that show a reported co-occurrence between BPD and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) of around 25 percent. Alice's decision to go off her medication (brand-name antipsychotic Abilify) after striking it rich also neatly tracks with this facet of the disorder.
In fact, as I go down the DSM-V checklist, it's clear that Alice squares quite well with a majority of the symptoms listed, including: “8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)”; and “7. Chronic feelings of emptiness,” the latter expressed in part through Wiig's detached line readings.
Again: “Welcome to Me” gets many of the disorder's specifics right, and it should be lauded for that. If nothing else, it's a giant step forward from dated “crazy lady” thrillers like 1971's “Play Misty for Me” and 1987's “Fatal Attraction” (both of which feature woman stalkers who have been widely pegged as “Borderline” in the press, if not the movies themselves). But the film fails in one important way: it never lets Alice be an actual human being.
I'm a fan of Kristen Wiig. She was rightly praised as one of “SNL's” standout cast members, and she won me over with her surprisingly layered performance in “Bridesmaids.” But in “Welcome to Me,” she plays Alice as a zonked-out cipher capable of only two modes: wooden, blank-eyed zombie and wailing basket case. At times it feels like one of Wiig's vacuous “SNL” caricatures stumbled onto the set of a 90-minute movie, an approach that doesn't do much to humanize a character we're seemingly supposed to feel something for. And with so few movies tackling the subject of BPD — much less tackling it in a non-sensationalistic manner — it feels like a giant missed opportunity to shed an honest light on a hugely-misunderstood disorder.
In fairness, it may not have been Piven's intent to make a “serious” movie about mental illness, and “Welcome to Me” certainly has a lot more on its mind, particularly in its satirization of both reality television and the brand of “inspirational”/aspirational daytime programming pioneered by Oprah in the 1990s. But then why name BPD as the source of Alice's troubles at all, if her purpose is merely to serve as the guileless centerpiece of a high-minded farce? While I doubt it was Piven's goal to make Alice the butt of the joke, that's how the movie plays, and I can think of nothing less funny than to point a finger and laugh at a person who suffers from mental illness.
My feelings on “Welcome to Me” were cemented the moment I began to wonder why Cardellini's character Gina, Alice's long-suffering bestie, would put up with the latter's repeated self-destructive foibles given her total lack of remorse or awareness — much less why she would become friends with her in the first place. Given that Alice is one of the only “openly” BPD characters audiences are likely to see depicted on screen, this represents a great misstep on the part of the film. Had it offered us a deeper look into Alice's pain, some entry into seeing the world through her eyes, it could have actually done some good. As a person who has experienced the earth-shattering effects of BPD firsthand, the fact that even I felt nothing for Alice is telling of the film's failures.