Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Welcome To Me": The Problems Of Portraying Mental Illness As Comedy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

On paper, Welcome to Me doesn’t really feel like a movie that should be a success.  Its premise is bizarre and fantastic, yet is often tragic in its portrayal of mental illness.  We’re expected to laugh at the antics of our protagonist, yet also recognize that borderline personality disorder can be debilitating to those who have it.  This film should be a complete and utter failure for its inability to find a consistent tone.  And yet, somehow, it works.  Not perfectly, but it works.

The aforementioned protagonist is Kristen Wiig as Alice, a woman prone to severe mood swings and so grounded in habit as to have kept her TV on continuously for eleven years.  One day, she happens to win the lottery, coming into possession of $86 million dollars.  She decides to use this money to buy her own public access TV show, titled Welcome to Me, which functions as emotional exhibitionism masqueraded as an Oprah-style talk show.  Through the bizarre spectacle of re-enacting supposed traumatic moments from her life, cooking seemingly inedible meals, and neutering dogs on live television, Alice simultaneously garners a cult following for her narcissistic display and alienates her closest friends.

Though the film is a work of pure fiction, it feels more like a take on the real life products of insanely wealthy film auteurs than it does a serious representation of mental illness.  Had Tommy Wiseau (The Room) decided to take a different approach to cinema, we might well have ended up with something as bizarrely autobiographical as Alice’s show, and the homage to the unhinged nature of Wiseau and his contemporaries feels deliberate.  Wiig’s self-centered auteur is every bit as artistically deficient and socially oblivious as her real life counterparts, and Wiig makes her simultaneously believable in her bizarre antics and otherworldly in her disconnection with reality.

As I stated earlier, though, this portrayal has its drawbacks, very closely walking the line of making fun of a serious mental illness.  It’s established early on that Alice is a very ill woman, yet we’re expected to laugh at what in normal circumstances would be black comedy gold.  But when the film wants us to feel sorry for Alice, the tragedy is always couched in terms of her diagnosis, and only in the film’s final scenes do we see her actually struggle with a character-developing conflict that isn’t directly attributable to her disorder.  Instead of writing Alice as a specifically diagnosed patient, it might have been preferable to portray her as merely an eccentric, removing the guilt inherent in laughing at a suffering woman while still keeping the basic essence of the comedic performance intact.

And yet, despite this glaring issue, I thought Welcome to Me was an entertaining film.  The climactic conflict feels somewhat tacked on with a resolution that doesn’t make much sense if you dwell on it, but the main reason to watch this film is to see Kristen Wiig step into the role of a self-obsessed film auteur using her newfound wealth to make her dreams come true.  And in giving that bizarre character a spotlight to shine in, this film achieves its raison d’etre, even if the dramatization of borderline personality disorder distracts from the film’s chief pleasures.

Do you find portrayal of mental illness problematic in films, or is it alright to portray comically insane characters?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. I actually thought it was a film based on Tommy Wiseau's life.