‘Welcome to Me’ probes the awakening of self-awareness

“Welcome to Me” (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini, Loretta Devine, Thomas Mann, Alan Tudyk, Mitch Silpa, Kulap Vilaysack, Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace. Director: Shira Piven. Screenplay: Eliot Laurence. Web site. Trailer.

Becoming self-aware is something we each do in our own way. Much depends on what we feel we need to discover about ourselves in the first place, which obviously varies – sometimes considerably – from person to person, based on the circumstances we’ve each created in our respective existences. This task can be especially daunting when those circumstances are characterized by particular types of challenges in need of resolution, as evidenced by the experience of a lost soul in search of herself in the hilarious new dark comedy, “Welcome to Me.”

What would you do with your money if you suddenly found yourself the recipient of an $86 million lottery prize? Many of us would likely buy a nice home, spring for an expensive car or travel the world in style. But, when Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) comes up a winner, she has some rather unusual ideas for how to spend her fortune. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, because Alice is by no means typical – and in almost every way.

Alice, a divorced former veterinary nurse, is obsessed with watching television talk shows (especially Oprah reruns) and self-help informercials. She has plenty of time for it, too; as a patient undergoing treatment for borderline personality disorder, she’s on state-sponsored psychiatric disability and receives counseling from a kindly (and extremely tolerant) therapist, Dr. Daryl Moffet (Tim Robbins). Despite these circumstances, Alice aspires to do “something big” with her life, yet her condition has forced her into a rather limited, low-key existence. That all changes, however, when she learns of her newfound wealth.

The freedom afforded by an $86 million windfall allows Alice to at last follow her dreams. She decides she wants to be on TV and approaches an infomercial production company about creating her own reality/talk show, a two-hour daily broadcast entirely devoted to her, titled Welcome to Me. Needless to say, the production staff is initially baffled by her strange request. Gabe Ruskin (Wes Bentley), one of the company’s co-owners, and two of its staff members, producer Deb Moseley (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and director Dawn Hurley (Joan Cusack), have reservations about airing a vanity program like this. However, when Alice announces that she’ll bankroll the entire project – for a tidy sum of $15 million – attitudes quickly change.

Given the production company’s financially strapped status, the sudden infusion of a huge pile of cash holds a lot of appeal, particularly for the organization’s other co-owner, Rich Ruskin (James Marsden), Gabe’s brother. And so, despite some obvious challenges with show content, Welcome to Me quickly gets the green light. But, production issues aside, there’s another even bigger problem that everyone will have to contend with – Alice’s revelation that she’s gone off her meds.

Those who care about Alice, including her parents (Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace), her gay ex-husband (Alan Tudyk) and his lover (Mitch Silpa), and her best friend, Gina (Linda Cardellini), are dismayed by her recent behavior. Dr. Moffet is especially troubled by her decision to cease taking her medication. But, as impulsive and irrational as these actions might seem, they pale in comparison to what happens when the show goes into production. And, no matter how wacky or outlandish Alice’s on- and off-air antics may be, she’s able to continue doing as she pleases as long as there are enablers – and money – to make her whims happen.

Welcome to Me quickly becomes an exercise in hilarious, bizarre, unrestrained behavior, full of riotous rants, unconventional on-air segments and even reenactments of incidents from Alice’s past. And, thanks to the show’s circus-like atmosphere, the program even begins to develop a modest following. But how long can this go on? What’s more, how long should it be allowed to go on? Indeed, when will the alleged “humor” stop being funny? Those are troubling concerns. But, not unlike a program of psychiatric care, Alice must let the process run its course to its eventual outcome – whatever that may ultimately be.

Superficially speaking, the scenario playing out here is undoubtedly one of the oddest narratives ever put to the big screen. But, when one looks beneath the surface, there’s clearly a lot going on, much of which may not be readily apparent at first glance. This is particularly true from the standpoint of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience based on our beliefs, thoughts and intents.

For instance, it’s obvious that Alice fundamentally grasps this concept, even if she can’t cogently put it into words or doesn’t fully understand its implications. Nevertheless, by her own admission, she’s positive that the circumstances of our lives aren’t a matter of luck but a consequence of something that intentionally arises from within each of us. She doesn’t quite have the mechanics right, but she certainly has the essence correct. And, for many of us, coming to that basic understanding is more than half the battle.

Of course, even with an understanding of the process, a general awareness of its existence can’t overcome a failure to realize the ramifications involved in it, a shortfall that can carry serious consequences. And, to a great degree, that becomes readily apparent through what Alice and her TV colleagues create.

For example, Alice says she wants to do something big with her life, and, inspired by all the television she has watched over the years, she sees her show as the medium to accomplish that goal. But, given her state of mind, with its jumbled assortment of beliefs, and her ensuing erratic behavior, does she fully realize everything she’s doing? How do cooking segments involving recipes for meatloaf cake with sweet potato frosting or public service spots featuring uncensored on-air pet neutering equate to doing “something big”? Is the greater good really being served when the show presents re-creations of seemingly trivial incidents from Alice’s teenage years, such as when someone supposedly rifled through her makeup bag without her permission? Yet such enigmatic incidents regularly constitute the content of Welcome to Me. Such manifestations, bizarre though they may be, are all Alice’s brainchildren, all of which originate from the beliefs that reside in her consciousness and subsequently spring forth into materialization. And, because she’s created the means to bring them into being (i.e., by conjuring up enough money to produce a show permitting such antics and to hire a complicit production staff to execute her wishes), there’s nothing stopping her from seeing her beliefs through to realization, no matter how off the wall they may be.

So how did such patently absurd manifestations become unleashed? It most likely happened when Alice decided to go off her medication, which Dr. Moffet had prescribed to stabilize her moods. With those moods stabilized, however, Alice also stifled her inner impulses. The beliefs she had been harboring for years were thus denied expression – that is, until she allowed their release with the removal of the impediment that had long suppressed them.

The question, of course, is, why did Alice decide to do this now? A number of explanations are possible. In one regard, the money provided her the means to make all this happen. But, in another respect, perhaps Alice saw a deeper purpose, a need to manifest an alternative “treatment” to the mind-numbing therapy she had been going through for years without any meaningful, tangible results. By having allowed herself to be medicated into submission – and, consequently, not being able to address the underlying issues that were the source of her emotional discomfort – Alice was prevented from tackling the beliefs that triggered her condition and put her into counseling in the first place.

However, with the medicinal barriers removed, and by having access to a milieu for giving expression to those long-suppressed beliefs, Alice now has an opportunity to try a different approach for working out the issues that conventional therapy failed to rectify. Alice most likely isn’t consciously aware that she’s doing any of this, and not all of her efforts may bear fruit. But, despite such shortcomings, she nevertheless has a medium at her disposal to explore different avenues for resolving her issues and to use (and hone) her manifestation skills for creating a more satisfying reality. And, if this approach gets results that other more traditional efforts couldn’t, then why not try it (unconventional though it may be)?

As Alice works her way through this process, it becomes clear that she’s wrestling with some personally painful issues. Some of them may be somewhat overblown, but others have definitely caused her anguish for a long time, primarily due to a lack of resolution. Alice now has a chance to change that. And, by doing so publicly, she also has an opportunity to draw attention to (and to raise awareness and support for) an issue that may well affect others similarly (and, if that’s not doing “something big,” then I don’t know what is).

With that said, however, the foregoing doesn’t absolve anyone involved in the creation of this scenario from their responsibility for its materialization (and all of its attendant ramifications). That’s especially true for the production company staff. They quite clearly see that there’s something wrong with Alice, yet, rather than take her off the air, they let her carry on with whatever tantrums and eccentric behavior she wants, all because she pays them to let her do it. While the money may provide a short-term fix for their cash flow problem, it comes at a cost. This becomes painfully apparent when the company’s attorney, Barb Vaughn (Loretta Devine), notifies the staff about a growing stack of defamation lawsuits filed against the organization for allegedly slanderous accusations made by Alice during her reenactment sequences in which she names the names of those who supposedly wronged her. While all the parties in this scenario may have firmly bought into the belief that “money talks,” at least some of them may not be aware that such “chatter” often carries consequences, some of which may require the creation of a lot of cash to keep the conversation going. Adopting a more responsible stance from the outset often costs less, but that’s a lesson Rich and his money-hungry colleagues might have to get the hard way given the beliefs they’ve employed in creating these circumstances.

From a responsibility standpoint, some might believe the filmmakers have abandoned their sense of it by using a humorous approach for addressing a topic that isn’t inherently funny. But it’s important to recognize that the picture isn’t laughing at the issue of mental illness but laughing about it in making its point. Humor is often a highly effective way of drawing attention to issues of noteworthy concern, and it has been employed quite successfully many times in addressing the mental health question, as seen in films like “King of Hearts” (1966), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “What About Bob?” (1991) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013). “Welcome to Me” is merely the latest offering in that vein, and it does its job well, even if it pushes the envelope considerably further than most of its predecessors. It may make some viewers squirm a bit at times, perhaps even prompting them to question the appropriateness of their laughter during certain sequences. Yet, by reading between the laughs, there won’t be any doubt where the filmmakers are coming from.

Overall, the picture hits the mark in almost every regard. It features a stellar performance by Wiig, who’s really showing her chops as a versatile actress and not just as a formula comedienne (much like she did in “The Skeleton Twins” (2014)). The film is also an excellent showcase for the inventive work of first-time screenwriter Eliot Laurence. Admittedly, the story meanders a little at times, with some story lines that don’t feel fully fleshed out, such as those involving Alice’s friendship with Gina and her budding romantic relationships with Gabe and with an impressionable college student (Thomas Mann). However, despite such drawbacks, the film never fails to entertain while delivering insights from which we can all benefit. The picture is currently playing in limited release in theaters specializing in independent cinema, as well as on various video streaming services, and DVD and Blu-ray disk preorders are available from major online retailers.

The route to self-awareness can take many different paths. What’s most important, though, is that we follow through on reaching our destination, no matter how we may choose to get there. If that means intentionally manifesting physical representations of the sources of our frustrations and purposely plunging ourselves into them to bring about resolution and personal understanding, then so be it. It’s certainly not the only option for achieving that goal, but, if it works, then more power to it – and to all of the other possibilities that ultimately help us to better know ourselves.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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