With reporting by Josh Horowitz
It would be easy to imagine "Welcome to Me" as a madcap, "oh, what shenanigans will she get into next" kind of comedy. After all the indie, in theaters now, stars Kristen Wiig, who is a very funny actress, and the plot synopsis seems ripe for pratfalls and one liners: Wiig's character wins $90 million in the lottery and decides to use the money to buy a public access talk show, starring her and about her.
Here's the thing: Wiig's character, Alice, has Bipolar disorder. She's gone off her medication and is ignoring her doctors' advice, instead choosing to pursue her dream of being the new Oprah, inspiring people with stories from her own past. One of these stories, for example, finds Wiig screaming and screaming, recounting a time she went on vacation and strongly suspected the cleaning staff of going through her luggage.
Um, haha? Big-budget, summer hit, R-rated comedy this is not (though it is indeed rated R, owing largely to a scene where Wiig walks naked through a casino during a low point).
But here's the thing: it is funny, while still managing not to be cringe-worthy in its treatment of those with mental illnesses.
"You don't read characters like that," Wiig told MTV News of what brought her to the project. Screenwriter Eliot Laurence was on set and collaborating with director Shira Piven most days, she said. Part of the challenge in making a film that honestly depicts life with mental illness is knowing that it's OK to laugh, as long as you're not laughing at someone.
"I feel like that was sort of the tough balance to find because there's definitely some comedic moments in it, but you don't ever want to be making fun of her or her situation or her illness or any of that," she said. "But she definitely does things that are funny and that's OK."
It's in this laugh-cry-laugh wedge of emotion that Wiig seems to find her sweet spot. As Alice, she stares blankly and earnestly says that she'd like to ride into the beginning of every episode of her show, "Welcome to Me," on a swan boat. It's sweet and sad. When you actually see her rolling around in that swan boat, it's hilarious. It's a heartbreaking mix of absurd and sweet that gets you laughing through your tears, even if you're not a thousand percent sure why you're so sad. It's the sadness of ordinary life, the same reason we watch reality TV.
Director Piven said that watching her daughter watch a reality show in which one of the leads seemed to be having a breakdown on national TV made her think of the deeper implications of our fascination with being voyeurs in everyday life, a feeling that certainly translates to the movie.
"There's a nerve that this story hits on, which to me it's something close to the collision of mental illness and media," Piven said. "They come together in this little explosion that hopefully illuminates something about how mad and crazy this media age we're living in is."
Linda Cardellini, who plays Alice's best friend in the movie, said that the script is respectful, while still acknowledging how funny life can be.
"It's so beautiful the way it walks this line," she said. "It's not a broad comedy at all. It has this sort of depth and truth to it that is very sad and real and yet it's funny at times. You're never laughing at a person with mental illness, you're watching this person go through all these different sort of sensitive and revealing things."
"Welcome to Me" is in theaters now.