(SNL promo photo)

In Praise of Kristen Wiig’s Risky Career Choices

Kristen Wiig’s genius is that she can generate humor and pathos from the same source, her characters’ pain.

In 2011, Bridesmaids proved that Kristen Wiig could successfully transition from Saturday Night Live (2005-2014) alum to bankable movie star when the Judd Apatow produced summer comedy grossed over $200 million worldwide. Wiig was the talk of the town, and many wondered what she would do next. What people probably didn’t expect was that she would appear in a series of challenging independent films and television series that would alienate the same mainstream audience who loved her more accessible work in SNL and Bridesmaids.

Comedians have a tendency to do this. After they master the art of comedy, many of them want to show off their serious sides. Jim Carrey, for example, won the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for The Truman Show (1998). However, there’s an important distinction. Carrey decided to display his dramatic chops after the success ofIn Living Color (1990-1994) and silly comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), The Cable Guy (1996), and Liar Liar (1997). By the time The Truman Show and Man on the Moon (1999) came along, Carrey already had a track record of box office hits and a loyal fan base. He paid his dues in Hollywood, and earned enough creative freedom to take a professional risk.

Wiig, by contrast, only had the success of SNL and Bridesmaids under her belt when she starred in offbeat films like Hateship Loveship (2013), The Skeleton Twins (2014), and Welcome to Me (2015). Her appearance in these films caught many by surprise, and she quickly established herself as a serious actress. It was a drastic transition because she didn’t follow the usual formula perfected by past comedians like Carrey. So far, the risk has paid off for Wiig. With the exception of the embarrassing Girl Most Likely (2012), Wiig’s career choices have been exceptional.

Hateship Loveship isn’t a great film, but Wiig’s performance is the glue that keeps it together. She plays Johanna Parry, a lonely caregiver who barely cracks a smile. It’s a brave performance because Wiig keeps her motivations hidden from the audience. We know that something is off with Johanna, but we don’t know exactly what it is. The film demonstrates Wiig’s ability to downplay a scene. In the clip below, for example, Johanna has a conversation with her caretaker’s daughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), and Wiig conveys her emotions quietly with her eyes. We sense Johanna’s sadness and her desire to help and be heard.

Wiig’s understated performance reminds me of Allison Janney’s heartbreaking work in American Beauty (1999), in which her silence speaks volumes about her character’s lack of self-confidence. Johanna is incredibly insecure, and the film’s greatest strength is that Wiig slowly allows Johanna to get her groove back through slight shifts in body language and facial expressions.

Wiig’s Maggie Dean in The Skeleton Twins is similarly miserable. In the film, Maggie is forced to mend the broken relationship with her suicidal brother Milo (Bill Hader). It’s difficult for Maggie to relate to her estranged brother, as well as her husband Lance (Luke Wilson), a kind man for whom she doesn’t feel passion. She has affairs with strangers to fill a void. These are serious themes, but the film isn’t as consistently dreary as Hateship Loveship. Occasionally, Wiig and Hader allow humor to creep in when the time is right.

The clip below is a scene in which Maggie and Milo bond while on drugs. The scene highlights Wiig’s strong improvisation skills, and shows that she and Hader have wonderful chemistry together. It’s a funny moment in a mostly depressing film. The overall tone of The Skeleton Twins may be off-putting for the Bridesmaids fans, but that’s precisely why Wiig is in it. Rather than repeat herself with another mainstream summer comedy, she challenges herself with a complex character study.

Wiig’s riskiest role is as Alice Klieg in Welcome to Me. Alice is a troubled woman who watches taped reruns of The Oprah Winfrey Show, regularly buys lottery tickets, and often visits a therapist (Tim Robbins) to treat her Borderline Personality Disorder. When she suddenly wins the lottery, she buys her own Oprah-inspired talk show. The tone throughout the film awkwardly shifts between satire and sentimentality, and the aesthetic is amateur, but Wiig’s performance significantly elevates the film to essential viewing.

Alice is not a likable woman. After she becomes rich, she ignores her therapist’s advice and discontinues her psychiatric treatment and medication. As the story progresses, Alice’s self-absorption gets more aggravating. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vast majority of moviegoers turn the film off before the end credits, but the annoyance is the point, and those who do stick with it will find themselves rewarded by Wiig’s fierce commitment to the role. Wiig has no problem confronting the audience with characters whose redeeming qualities are repressed. Alice is her most abrasive character to date.

Anyone who watches Lifetime’s Unreal will appreciate the film’s take on the state of reality television. While it’s true that studio heads profit on the suffering, misery, and pain of its reality stars, the vast majority of these stars know what they’re getting into before they sign up. Like Unreal, Welcome to Me doesn’t let participants like Alice off the hook. For every greedy television network that wants to produce a reality show, there’s a delusional narcissist who wants to appear in one. The twist here is that the show’s creator is also its star, and she pays the television network to put her on the air. We understand that Alice suffers from mental illness, but Wiig refreshingly doesn’t treat her like the victim.

As she does in The Skeleton Twins, Wiig manages to make light-hearted moments in an otherwise dark film. The clip below, for example, shows Alice at work on her show. In this particular scene, Alice eats a meatloaf cake in front of her live studio audience. Wiig’s deadpan sense of humor is the key to the scene’s success. We laugh because the situation is so strange. This uncomfortable amount of awkwardness persists throughout the film, and is one of many reasons why Wiig’s performance deserves our praise. It’s kind of funny, kind of sad, extremely strange, and always captivating.

Wiig’s recent television work is even more daring than her film work. The Spoils of Babylon (2014) and A Deadly Adoption (2015) are two experimental satires that show Wiig’s eclectic taste. The former is a spoof of epic miniseries like The Thorn Birds (1983) and Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), and the latter is a Lifetime made-for-television movie that mocks the many Lifetime made-for-television movies that people love to hate-watch.

These are brave choices for Wiig because the material isn’t instantly accessible. In order to appreciate the humor, audience members must have an awareness of the source material. Those who haven’t heard of The Thorn Birds or seen a Lifetime movie won’t “get” the jokes. Those who aren’t familiar with the genre conventions will miss out on the fun.

The trailer for A Deadly Adoption below underscores this point. It plays like any other Lifetime original, and the only way to tell that it’s a spoof is to acknowledge Wiig’s presence. Wiig and her co-star Will Ferrell, two renowned comedians, play it straight, and the joke is precisely that they play it straight. The brilliance of the film is its simultaneous self-awareness and self-seriousness. A Deadly Adoption acknowledges the absurdity of the Lifetime original without straying too far from the model.

If there’s any connection between Wiig’s different characters, it’s that each of the women she plays is miserable. Whether mainstream comedy like Bridesmaids or indie drama like The Skeleton Twins, Wiig has a tendency to play women who are unhappy. The vast majority of them are also unlikeable. Wiig’s genius is that she can generate humor and pathos from the same source, her characters’ pain. In the comedies, we laugh so we don’t cringe, and in the dramas, we cry because we can’t laugh. There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and Wiig knows exactly where that line is and when to cross it.

Within the next few years, Wiig will be seen in the risqué coming-of-age drama The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Sebastián Silva’s indie Nasty Baby, and more mainstream fare like Ridley Scott’s The Martian and the remake of Ghostbusters. This is a diverse set of films by some of the industry’s most ambitious filmmakers, and they demonstrate Wiig’s willingness to push her artistry as far as it can go. I have a feeling that it can go farther than any of us, perhaps ever her, ever imagined.