Borderline personality disorder turns out to be more of a laughing matter than it probably should be in “Welcome to Me,” a strange and often startlingly inspired media/mental-illness comedy directed by actress-filmmaker Shira Piven. After drifting into a semi-dramatic mode in her earlier Toronto-premiered indies, “Hateship Loveship” and “Girl Most Likely” (as well as her just-released Sundance entry, “The Skeleton Twins”), Kristen Wiig tears into a role that plays to her deadpan gifts as a woman who wins the lottery and starts her own talkshow, where she proceeds to work through her deep-seated emotional and psychological wounds on live TV. At 86 minutes, this breezily bonkers item doesn’t overstay its, er, welcome, spelling a possibly warm reception in niche theatrical and VOD play.
The chief virtue of Eliot Laurence’s first-produced screenplay is not just its simple yet comically fertile premise, but also the brisk and blithely implausible manner in which it’s presented. This is not a movie that wastes any time trying to explain itself. Not long after she’s introduced watching her massive VHS collection of infomercials and “Oprah” reruns in a desert-town apartment that doesn’t appear to have seen much daylight since the mid-’90s, Alice Klieg (Wiig) finds that she’s won an $86 million jackpot. With quirky resolve, she proceeds to implement some significant life changes while her family and friends, who include her gay ex-husband (Alan Tudyk) and her stalwart BFF, Gina (Linda Cardellini), nervously offer their support from the sidelines.
And so, after going off her meds and moving into an enormous casino suite, Alice plants herself in the live studio audience for a morning chatshow, where she proceeds to hijack the broadcast with an interminably bizarre TMI monologue that holds everyone spellbound — including the crew members, who, against their better judgment, keep the cameras rolling. And when Alice calmly writes a $15 million check to finance her own “Oprah”-esque talkshow, which will feature herself as the host and subject of every episode, the network chief (James Marsden) accepts her offer despite the common-sense protests of his colleagues (Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh), his logic being that the cash infusion will at least forestall another round of layoffs at the perpetually low-rated network.
It’s here that “Welcome to Me” (as the talkshow is titled) really spreads its wings — quite literally, in the case of the swan boat that Alice insists on using for her grand entrance. For the rest of the show, Alice hosts a cooking segment that shows viewers how to regulate their moods with a low-carb, high-protein diet (meatloaf cake, anyone?); offers lessons on topics like “Matching Colors to Emotions”; proves astoundingly articulate on the subject of her illness and her treatment; and watches in critical dismay while younger actresses re-enact formative/traumatic episodes from her life. (“Fuck you to death, Jordana!” Alice screams at the poor woman cast as a childhood nemesis.)
Later, as the show inexplicably begins to catch on, Alice will be sufficiently emboldened to put her past veterinary experience to good use by neutering dogs on live TV, drawing the ire of animal-rights orgs as well as the many ex-friends and acquaintances who have filed lawsuits in response to being slandered on the show. Apart from Gabe Ruskin (Wes Bentley), the mild-mannered network personality whom Alice begins screwing in earnest, no one else working there seems too happy with their newest celebrity, either.
As played with bipolar brilliance by Wiig, her extraordinary straight-faced control occasionally giving way to violent fits of fury (including one public meltdown that leads to a surprising full-frontal nude scene), Alice could easily have worked as one of the actress’ “Saturday Night Live” characters, which is hardly a knock against her. This woman’s psyche is such a wonderfully demented place to be that it sends the talkshow segments into a blissful comic stratosphere, rendered with a pitch-perfect combo of fake-looking sets and elevator music, and punctuated by regular cutaways to the network staff in utter disbelief at what they’re seeing. Admittedly, those behind-the-scenes players could have been better employed; it’s a shame to hire actors as gifted and underexposed as Cusack, Leigh and Marsden and not give them more to do, even if there is a certain logic to Alice’s personality crowding almost everyone else out of the frame.
There’s no doubt that Alice is effectively enacting a very public, very expensive form of self-therapy, but what makes Piven’s sophomore directing effort (following her 2011 debut, “Fully Loaded”) such an offbeat delight for much of its running time is the way it privileges comedy over catharsis. True, the film’s heroine may learn a thing or two about grown-up maturity and responsibility, as when her irresponsible actions on the air cause major friction with her longtime therapist (Tim Robbins) and with Gina, played by Cardellini with wonderful vulnerability and generosity of spirit. But as presented, Alice isn’t a puzzle that needs solving — she’s more fun unsolved, frankly — and the filmmakers seem well aware that of all the things this woman may need, our sympathy isn’t one of them.
Even as its setting beckons in the direction of classic media cautionary tales like “Network” and “Broadcast News” (with perhaps a smattering of the “Anchorman” movies, whose key talents Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are among the producers here), “Welcome to Me” never devolves into a finger-wagging denunciation of television, any more than it becomes a hand-wringing portrait of the ravages of mental illness. The talkshow conceit exists not to provide Alice with a remedy, but rather to give us a momentary, uniquely entertaining glimpse into who she is and, on some level, always will be. Generic expectations are defied all the way up to the unexpectedly abrupt ending: In a picture that could well draw the usual ire for daring audiences to laugh at a character with a psychological disorder, it’s perhaps Piven’s most compassionate gesture that she leaves Alice more or less as she found her, allowing this darkly funny romp to tilt, almost imperceptibly, into tragedy.