One of Kristen Wiig’s finest moments as a movie star is a throwaway bit of shamed silent morning-after comedy: Her Bridesmaids character is skulking out of the home of a cad played by Jon Hamm. She’s playing it cool, swallowing back the humiliation of her bad choices, trying to show him and herself that she doesn’t need him for anything. Then, at the end of his driveway, she’s aghast to see that she does need him — at least to open the gate.
No matter. She’s strong, capable, together. She’ll just climb over it. She chucks her pocketbook over, hauls herself up, and of course the gate opens, with her on top of it, carried along on a slow, soiling ride. Her head brushes into some leaves, and she waves, a little shyly, at a gawking neighbor in the street. But what’s so funny — and, in 2011, was so surprising — is Wiig’s face: Here, the creator of so many Saturday Night Live grotesques seems to do nothing. She hardly reacts at all, her character prideful and placid, feigning with impressive conviction that everything’s fine, that this is exactly how she wanted this moment to go.
The real Wiig never gets stuck atop out-of-control embarrassments. She turns down most big dumb comedies, including a Bridesmaids sequel — like Bill Murray before her, her signing on for Ghostbusters seems some kind of concession. Instead, she’s dedicated herself to smallish indie unclassifiables, dark and funny films like The Skeleton Twins, playing women who hide themselves behind the impassive face she revealed as that gate swung open.
You might expect a film titled Welcome to Me would find her inviting some of that Bridesmaids audience back. That’s not the case. Instead, this spiky, pushy, sometimes upsetting comedy finds Wiig creating something whole and alive out of her apparent contradictions: As in Skeleton Twins, her character here — multimillion-dollar lotto winner Alice Klieg — is often slumped at a depressive ebb, and keeps her face a studied blank — it will give away none of the turmoil inside her. But as on Saturday Night Live, Wiig here is the unpredictable center of every scene, the over-the-top comic creation capable of any response at any time. It’s like an indie Anchorman, another story of a selfish and clueless oaf who makes us laugh by behaving like an ass for an hour or so and then turning nice for the climax.
So, the movie’s messy. But it’s funny, pungent, and sometimes affecting. Wiig’s Alice is a self-help-obsessed rural Californian who starts all the important conversations in her life with “I have a prepared statement.” When she goes off her script, no conversation can stay on its rails: “So, they thought I had this virus only cats get,” she’ll announce.
Wiig fully invests herself in the mental states of her characters, so her Alice at first registers as a miscalculation, an impossible assemblage of indie-flick quirk that will never come to seem real: She wears a fanny pack and hugs her TV; her home is a library of VHS tapes with old Oprah shows on them. (She cries and mouths the words along as she watches them.) Are we supposed to come to care for so obvious an invention, the way we did for Wiig’s Skeleton Twin?
I never quite did — her diagnosis is too fuzzy, and her behavior too random. But I felt for her — director Shira Piven is sympathetic to the struggles of the borderline, the bipolar, or whatever inexact term is used today for functioning people sometimes at odds with their own minds. And, lord, did I laugh. The movie goes all-in on one of the most reliable comedy premises, that of the free-spending millionaire ruled by whims. Alice holds Oprah as a life model, so it makes perfect sense — to her — to spend her windfall on what used to be one of Oprah’s favorite things: her own TV show. Alice pays the production staff of a company specializing in infomercials to make 100 episodes of her own Oprah, a one-woman talk show/performance piece examining all the minutiae and trauma of her life. Her hired help is baffled and appalled by her ideas: She’ll ride onstage in a swan to host segments with titles like “I Can Still Smell You” and “Regulating Your Moods With a High-Protein Lifestyle.”
The show that Alice crafts — and that we howl at — is a delicious send-up of pop-actualization culture, but it’s also wise to the ways that Oprah and the like do help people to feel greater control over their lives. Alice’s show, of course, can’t do that: It’s all crackpot exhibitionism, with Wiig (mostly) in her best stuck-on-the-driveway-gate form. Alice introduces a topic by saying, “This morning I woke up, and there was a pubic hair on my pillow shaped as a question mark.” She’ll bake a cake made of meatloaf, and she’ll stage re-enactments of the times girls were cruel to her growing up. Woe to the actresses cast as her: On air, she corrects their line readings, and occasionally goes into a shocking, screaming rage — why don’t they play her right?
Thankfully, those moments when she loses control aren’t played for laughs. But Alice mostly holds to that stoic, put-on dignity Wiig so often has made so funny. The movie has problems: It hashes psychology, scenes without Alice tend to come off stiff, the happy ending feels off, and the excellent supporting cast (Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh) is mostly just there to react. But Wiig has never been better, and it’s on to a potent truth every time Alice powers through embarrassment by pretending everything is just as she wants it. How many times a week do you do that?