A few years back there were frequently broadcast infomercials advertising a strange novelty product called The Perfect Polly. Polly, in case you somehow don’t remember, was a small plastic bird that would sing & move its head whenever prompted by its motion-activated sensors. The commercial was memorably amusing in the way infomercials sometimes are, especially in its assertions that Polly was a life-like substitute for real parakeets (it wasn’t), but there was more to it than that. It was also deeply sad. A lot of the ad consisted of lonely-looking people, mostly the elderly, interacting with the plastic bird as if it were their only friend in the world. As the narrator cheerily chirps, “By the window or on the shelf, with Perfect Polly you’re never by yourself!” the tone is decidedly dark. It makes total sense, then, the first image you see in the dark comedy Welcome to Me is a television playing the Perfect Polly ad in a lonely woman’s apartment.
An unmedicated recluse with borderline personality disorder, Welcome to Me’s protagonist Alice Klieg spends most of her days memorizing VHS recordings of old Oprah broadcasts alone in her apartment. She has a surprisingly strong support group that includes her parents, her ex-husband & his lover, and an unbelievably selfless best friend, but Alice is still for the most part alone in the world. This changes when she wins the lottery through a magical turn of events (the numbers on her winning ticket are announced in their exact sequence) and rashly decides to spend her new-found fortune by producing her own Oprah-like talk show at a local television station. The station is more than happy to oblige (read: take advantage of) her. Alice’s ambitions are realized and her own self-obsessed talk show, also titled Welcome to Me, begins to snowball in terms of scale & production costs. Described by her mother as an “emotional exhibitionist”, Alice uses the platform to recreate & interact with emotionally traumatic events from her past as well as offer a charmingly blunt brand of TMI like the tidbit, “I’ve been using masturbation as a sedative since 1991.” At first it’s expected that people will react to Alice’s exhibitionism like a jokey, Tim & Eric type of programming, but instead her brutal honesty cuts through the laughter and leaves her audiences stunned, especially by the time she’s cathartically performing veterinary surgeries live on the air.
Much like the Pretty Polly ad that kicks it all off, Welcome to Me starts off as oddly amusing, then goes pitch black in tone, then brings it back around to find a surprisingly strong balance between the two. Kristen Wiig’s central role as Alice might be her greatest performance on record, building off of her usual awkward brand of humor, but tempering it with a nuance that makes Alice deeply empathetic (kind of the way Melissa McCarthy’s schtick culminated in something special with last year’s Tammy). It helps that Wiig is surrounded by a stacked cast of character actors here. Produced by Will Ferrell & Adam McKay, Welcome to Me features supporting roles from Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, Jason Marsden, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a delightfully crass Joan Cusack as a no-nonsense television producer. In lesser hands the film could’ve devolved into empty, pointless indie quirk, but instead a much darker sense of humor is struck here and it’s one that hits a lot closer to home than you’d expect, given some of Kristen Wiig’s past work, which is often hilarious, but not always this touching.