Welcome to Me is hard to watch, but even more difficult to ignore.
“It’s a new era, an $86 million Alice,” Alice Klieg (Kirsten Wiig) tells her therapist (Tim Gunn). She's just won the lottery, and nothing is going to stop her from achieving her dreams of becoming the next Oprah. Through her self-obsession, Welcome to Me considers a broader, and unsettling, culture of narcissism, extending beyond the desire to be a TV celebrity. In Alice's show, “Welcome to Me by Alice Klieg,” she quite literally turns her life into a show.
She's not Rupert Pupkin, but Alice is living with a borderline personality disorder, a plot point that may or may not let the rest of us off the hook. Her small apartment is filled with swan trinkets, VHS tapes, and piles of lottery tickets. She’s alone and self-absorbed, and off her medication. Her favorite thing to do is watch Oprah, sitting in front of the television reciting a taped recording of the show word for word.
When she wins the $86 million and decides to mount her own TV show, her family and her best friend, Gina (Linda Cardellini) are worried. “Everyone wants to be on TV,” Alice tells her mother (Joyce Hiller Piven), who replies, “Not everyone is an emotional exhibitionist.” Alice's ambitions pose a different dilemma for Gabe (Wes Bentley) and Rich (James Marsden), the owners of a failing infomercial studio, who accept her money and watch as she broadcasts her opinions on oral sex, low “carbohydrant” meatloaf cake recipes, and neutering her dogs.
Alice's inability to see herself as others might is reinforced by recurring shots of TV screens with her in center frame. Increasingly, Alice can't imagine a difference between being on-camera and off-camera. The film makes her disorientation ours: one early morning, we see a close-up of the TV, airing an infomercial. The camera pans over to Alice, sleeping in bed. She awakens, and stares straight into the camera and says, “Hi, I’m Alice, and welcome to me.” As the camera pulls back, we see she's on a set that's an exact replica of her home. The show is doubled, as what we're watching is also now displayed on the television screen that had just now been airing the infomercial. We're left to contemplate a frame showing the two images of Alice side by side, one in the foreground on a TV screen and the other in the background looking directly into the camera. That Alice has rebuilt her apartment as a set suggests that she's taken another step toward her goal, but also toward her delusion, and we're following along.
Welcome to Me further smudges the lines between (seeming) reality and Alice's imagination in scenes where she reenacts moments from her past. Though she hires actors to dramatize the scenarios, Alice inserts herself in every aspect of the show, appearing on our screen continually. While the actors stand in the background, their images clear and crisp, a blurry Alice appears in the foreground, interrupting the performances by calling out what she might (or might not) remember. Against the set's muted beiges and grays, Alice’s hot pink dress draws the viewer’s eye to the corner of the screen, even when she doesn't speak.
“Colors help me keep my emotions separate,” Alice doesn't quite explain. And her apartment offers examples: her kitchen is bright red, the bedroom sunny yellow, and the living room, where she keeps most of her recorded tapes, is a bold blue. But even as these primary colors might help her feel organized, Welcome to Me resists easy categories. It doesn't judge Alice or make fun of her, but invites you to understand, or at least imagine understanding. At times, it’s hard to know if we’re supposed to be laughing or cringing. As Alice digs into a meatloaf cake she's baked during her show, she spends long seconds staring into the camera and chewing, without a word. The scene cuts to the various spectators who watch her in awe. No music accompanies the scene, and as the minutes go by, it’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck. We can't look away and we can't stop it. We can only watch.
“Welcome To Me”, the show, seems like it’s headed for disaster before it even begins, but the film becomes an intriguing, sometimes even disturbing, study of a mentally ill woman who has the means to follow her lifelong dream. Alice’s eccentric self-absorption might make her seem more like an egotist than a victim. But she's not precisely a villain either, as her limited emotional agency undercuts the apparent fact that her money allows her to make choices not available to most of us. She's complicated, like and unlike her various audiences. Her show is a puzzle and so is her movie. Welcome to Me remains hard to watch, but even more difficult to ignore.