Review: Kristen Wiig walks a comic tightrope in the uncomfortable ‘Welcome To Me’

When I reviewed “The Judge” last night, I talked about how one character in particular really rubbed the wrong way. In the film, Robert Downey Jr's character has a younger brother who is portrayed as “slow.” I put that in quotes because the film goes out of its way to avoid ever naming what's wrong with him, and it's that movie thing where they're afraid to offend anyone so they make it so generic that it's basically offensive to everyone.

It bothers me because it treats the character as an easy punchline, a cheap laugh, and they use him for convenient exposition. Need to explain something? Just have the slow brother ask someone to explain it to him again. I'll be honest… it made my skin crawl, and they certainly aren't the first to do it. When I first heard the premise for “Welcome To Me,” I was afraid it might be the same sort of thing, but Shira Piven, working from a script by Elliot Laurence, has directed a beautiful, sad, sweet and funny movie that deals honestly with mental illness while also earning big laughs and offering up some hard truths. And it helps that Kristen Wiig gives the best sustained performance of her entire career in the lead.

Wiig stars as Alice Klieg, a woman whose Borderline Personality Disorder has cost her almost everything in her life. Her marriage, her job, her sense of freedom. She's heavily medicated, living alone, sad all the time, and locked into a rigid, almost compulsive routine. Part of that routine involves buying a lottery ticket every day, and on one particular day, she wins. $86 million, to be precise.

There's probably a big comedy version of “Welcome To Me” about what happens when someone having a manic episode wins the lottery and stops taking their meds, like some hilarious cross between “Brewster's Millions” and “A Beautiful Mind.” This is not that movie. One of the other routines of Alice's involves watching and rewatching and rewatching tapes of various episodes of “Oprah.” She has them memorized. She positively lives and breathes Oprah. And when she wins all that money, Alice has an idea. It's an idea that Darryl (Tim Robbins), her psychiatrist, positively hates, but the money enables her to make it happen. She approaches a pair of brothers who own a small local infomercial production studio, and she pays them $15 million to produce 100 episodes of a talk show called “Welcome To Me” starring Alice. The only topic? Alice.

The staff at the station include James Marsden and Wes Bentley as the brothers, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the great Joan Cusack as Barb, the director for the show, and they all know that Alice is a total lunatic, genuinely damaged and disconnected, and when she begins making the show, it is a train crash. Even so, they've made a deal with her for 100 episodes, and they set out to deliver 100 episodes with her. Somehow.

Perhaps “Welcome To Me” is the inevitable conclusion of a culture where memoir has become so commonplace as to be cliche. Everyone spends so much time talking about their pain in public that you almost have to wonder how much time they have to actually have any pain. Alice has one good friend in her life, and Linda Cardellini is very good in the role. The whole cast does really good work, and Cusack in particular steals every single shot she appears in. This is Wiig's movie, though, start to finish, and every scene, there is at least one choice, one thing she does, that I find fascinating. I laughed quite a bit in the film, but it's not at the expense of Alice's illness.

Look, I get that this isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. But there's something so real, so sad about the film and the character, that I found myself drawn in. And when the film wants to cut, it cuts deep. It does not let Alice off the hook for being mentally ill, and it doesn't treat that as something to be mocked. Even so, there are going to be people who are rubbed completely wrong by this film simply because of how committed Wiig is to playing a character who is not easy to like. So be it. You can't make a film like “Welcome To Me” and worry about making it play to everyone. As the film escalates, it becomes more and more uncomfortable, and when Wiig really goes dark as Alice, it becomes clear that she is not making fun of this woman or her pain or her sorrows. Wiig plays this both emotionally and physically naked, and I think it's amazing work.

“Welcome To Me” will represent a challenge to any distributor, but it's a movie that will find a passionate audience at some point. It would have been so easy after the release of “Bridesmaids” for Kristen Wiig to settle into a career of big broad slightly off-center romantic comedies, but she has never made the easy choices. “Welcome To Me” proves that she's willing to dig deep for laughs that matter, and that she's not afraid to make it hurt.

“Welcome To Me” is looking for US distribution now.