It's tempting to call the new movie "Welcome To Me" more funny odd than funny ha-ha, but to say so also undersells that it is genuinely funny too, while also warm and strange and daring. Directed by Shira Piven, written by Eliot Laurence and with an unpredictable live-wire lead performance by Kristen Wiig, the film has its world premiere Friday as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
"I don't like to call it a comedy," explained Piven in a recent interview in Los Angeles. "It's not a comedy-comedy."
The film captures the offbeat time warp of the present-day desert cities around Palm Springs, as the movie is set, and was partly filmed, in Palm Desert. Alice Klieg (Wiig), a woman with borderline personality disorder, struggles to maintain even the facade of a normal, productive life such as a job, friendships and relationships while seeming to spend far too much of her time reciting along to videotaped reruns of "Oprah."
That is, until she wins $85 million in the lottery. Alice stops taking her medication, moves into a casino hotel and hires a local infomercial production company to help her create a show about her and her life. The show includes reenactments, sometimes moments from childhood, sometimes events much more recent. Alice's intentions are unclear to everyone but herself and place a strain on the few human connections she does have in her life.
"It makes people uncomfortable when people make decisions that are not what other people would do, that society would want them to do," said Wiig. "Alice has all this money and she wants to make a talk show about her life. We may think that's crazy because we wouldn't think of doing that. So then you're like, if she's got all this money and she wants to do it, why is that so crazy?"
Produced by Bron Studios and Gary Sanchez Productions – Piven is married to Adam McKay, who is credited as a producer along with his Gary Sanchez partner Will Ferrell – "Welcome To Me" comes into Toronto looking for a distributor. The movie also features Linda Cardellini as Alice's friend, Piven's mother Joyce Piven as Alice's mother, Alan Tudyk as Alice's ex, Tim Robbins as her beleaguered therapist and Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden and Wes Bentley as the people she hires to help put on her show.
"Yes, this is a story about a woman with mental illness, it absolutely is," said Piven, "Though to me it's always been a slightly different kind of prism on the subject; it's a movie about the illness in our culture, which is all the reality TV shows and this crazy cult of personality. And that's when I feel the movie sparks; it's a crazy explosion of these two things meeting."
Piven, who also directed the feature "Fully Loaded," first met screenwriter Eliot Laurence when he came into an acting class she was teaching. She heard from a friend about a script he had written and asked to read it. Though originally intended by Laurence as a television pilot, Piven worked with him to develop it into the feature script that has become "Welcome To Me."
It was the character of Alice Klieg which most struck Piven from the moment she first read Laurence's work.
"I felt like he had written a completely alive character," she said. "I felt like I know this person, I can hear her and smell her. I've had encounters with her. It was just one of those rare scripts that jumps at you. It felt like it was already alive off the page."
Wiig was Piven's first choice for the part, and was willing to wait some three months before the in-demand actress was able to read the script, confident Wiig would respond to it once she did. And so it was.
"I had never read anything like it," said Wiig. "It was one of those scripts that could have really gone a million different ways. I think it was kind of funny and sad, and I like the combination of those two things. It was also a bit scary. I knew when I was reading it that I wanted to do it."
One of the film's most startling moments is when, during a severe breakdown, Alice walks completely naked across the gambling floor of the casino where she has been living. The scene was shot at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, and though privacy and security precautions were in place, the casino was still very much open for business.
"Just one person and one phone and it would have been out there," Wiig said. "We couldn't really shut it down. We just had to find our little area. But no one saw anything. I mean, people saw everything, the extras saw everything.
"And I was terrified to do it, for the obvious reasons," she added, "and then after I did it, I was like, oh this is actually kind of freeing, how many people can say they were just walking around a public place naked with a bunch of people around?"
After her breakdown, Alice builds herself back up and yet even after a grand finale broadcast, the movie's story ends on an ambiguous note. It's uncertain if Alice got her money's worth by spending it on the living biography of her television show, whether she's any healthier or better adjusted than she was before winning the lottery and launching her plan.
"I have my own thoughts on that," added Wiig. "I think it's one of those things where people have different reactions to it and I want to give that to them. It's kind of nice to have it be whatever people want it to be."
Piven added, "For me, especially, I didn't want her to suddenly just get better because that feels like a betrayal of what really happens in life.
"We're all capable of change, but change doesn't come easily. I think her change is believable," Piven said. "It's the way people usually change. They take a step. And by the end of the movie, she's taken a step forward."