WELCOME TO ME Review | TIFF 2014

     September 7, 2014

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Don’t get me wrong: I like making fun of the mentally ill as much as the next person.  There’s nothing quite like reducing human suffering down to a handful of quirks and laughing at the patient.  Shira Piven’s awful Welcome to Me is the modern-day equivalent of visiting an asylum, mocking the patients, and then calling their behavior “quirky”.  Not content with merely being cruel, Piven also reaches for a smug, self-satisfied critique of how society uses the mentally ill for entertainment even though she’s constantly using every clichéd indie trick in the book to belittle her protagonist.   The film is an ugly, smarmy piece of work that never ceases to pander for laughs, pathos, and plaudits.

Alice Kleig (Kristen Wiig) is a single, middle-aged woman suffering from borderline personality disorder, but the movie doesn’t bother to treat that like it’s a real thing.  Instead, it’s an excuse to stockpile a bunch of weird stuff like shelves filled with porcelain swans and VHS tapes of old Oprah episodes that Alice has memorized by heart.  She also plays the lotto, and ends up winning $86 million.  Off her meds and desperate to be heard, Alice goes to an infomercial network and pays $15 million to star in her own, two-hour show Welcome to Me, a train wreck of personal vendettas, cooking recipes, and other unhinged activities that let Alice vent her frustrations while the world watches in morbid curiosity.

For those who saw Anchorman 2, imagine Wiig’s character, Chani, got her own movie, and then that movie pretended she was a real person.  Chani’s line, “I like the parts of your face that are covered with skin,” could easily be said by Alice (especially since Wiig uses the same quiet, stilted delivery), but whereas Anchorman 2 is a broad comedy, Welcome to Me wants us to buy Alice as a human being except Piven could care less as about her lead as anything more than an amusing headcase.

It seems that screenwriter Eliot Laurence got caught up in how many weird things he could make Alice do, and perhaps under different direction, these things wouldn’t be played for easy laughs.  In a more appropriate light, Alice is incredibly sad, but Piven never taps into that.  She’d rather get a chuckle out of Alice making a cake out of meatloaf or reenacting old high-school grievances.  There’s nothing therapeutic about Alice’s program.  It doesn’t cause her to grow or gain any kind of understanding.  It’s just a freak show.

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And then Piven has the temerity to turn around and accuse the audience for participating in a culture of ironic appreciation.  The director can’t resist making Alice a success because who couldn’t get wrapped up in this little spitfire who clearly needs psychiatric treatment?  The movie shares all of Alice’s narcissism and self-delusion, and you could argue that Piven is sympathizing with her protagonist except Alice never laughs at herself.  She doesn’t know she’s acting strangely, and the film certainly doesn’t have the intelligence or the bravado to make any serious headway into Alice’s psyche.  Instead, Piven would rather tut-tut the audience for all the laughs she desperately tried to get at the expense of Alice’s disability.

I don’t believe any topic is “off-limits” when it comes to comedy, but some subjects are tougher than others. Getting honest laughs out of mental illness isn’t easy, but it is possible (a recent example that come to mind is Observe and Report).  In the wrong hands, mining humor from this behavior quickly becomes mean-spirited, lazy, and idiotic.  It’s not enough that Welcome to Me attempts to hide its toxic personality behind a breezy indie.  Piven had to go the extra mile and look down on her audience, and use a cheap, obvious, “gotcha!” attitude to convey a hypocritical message.  It may not be crazy, but it’s certainly deluded.

Rating: F

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