May 08

“Welcome to Me”: A Different Kind of Therapy for Borderline Personality

Kristen Wiig stars in the new indie dramedy Welcome to Me, written by Eliot Laurence and directed by Shira Piven. IMDB describes it as “(a) year in the life of Alice Klieg, a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder who wins Mega-millions, quits her meds and buys her own talk show.”

MORE ABOUT THE PLOT OF WELCOME TO ME

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

Wiig’s Alice Klieg was diagnosed as a youth as a manic-depressive. While the diagnosis changed over the decades (her shrink, played by Tim Robbins, currently calls it Borderline Personality Disorder), Alice didn’t: Shelves of VHS tapes and a collection of ceramic swans attest to a lifelong fixation on a shallow sort of self-examination, the kind of hear-my-voice empowerment daytime TV was built on. When she wins an $86 million lottery, she seems less excited about the money than about the chance to read ‘a prepared statement’ about the story of her life to news cameras.

THE TRAILER

WHO IS ALICE?

Betsy SharkeyLos Angeles Times: “Her particular brand of disorder means she is, as the saying goes, honest to a fault. Sometimes, that means reminding a good friend of her teenage bikini phobia on national TV, at others, it’s more graphic — like when a sexual urge hits her. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen a lot. More common is her raw emotional vulnerability.”

Christopher Gray, Slant:  “Beneath her acts of character assassination, Piven and Wiig suggest a searching in Alice that makes her both palatable and sympathetic. (The film only seems to look down on her when using her penchant to mispronounce words as a crutch for additional, unnecessary laughs.)…Wiig affords Alice with an occasionally startling range of false confidence and emotional vulnerability…”

Justin Chang, Variety: “There’s no doubt that Alice is effectively enacting a very public, very expensive form of self-therapy, but what makes Piven’s sophomore directing effort…such an offbeat delight for much of its running time is the way it privileges comedy over catharsis…Alice isn’t a puzzle that needs solving — she’s more fun unsolved, frankly — and the filmmakers seem well aware that of all the things this woman may need, our sympathy isn’t one of them.”

HOW MENTAL ILLNESS IS PORTRAYED IN WELCOME TO ME

Justin Chang, Variety: On her TV show, Alice, among other kinds of kooky segments, “proves astoundingly articulate on the subject of her illness and her treatment; and watches in critical dismay while younger actresses re-enact formative/traumatic episodes from her life.”

Christopher Gray, Slant: “The film rejects a fawning (or even particularly detailed) account of mental illness in favor of a plunge into the deep end of Alice’s bottomless ego.”

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “The film is in no rush to ask whether Alice’s tsunami of ego is eccentricity we can enjoy or a serious illness that merits our concern. Dr. Moffet regularly urges her to get back on her medication, but casting Robbins in the part is like a signal that we shouldn’t take his lefty nanny-state advice too seriously.”

OTHER CHARACTERS

Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com:

While some fine performers like Jennifer Jason Leigh get lost in the shuffle, others manage to stand out: Tim Robbins as Alice’s long-suffering if naggy pill-pushing shrink; Linda Cardellini as her one and only friend; Wes Bentley as the on-air infomercial spokesman whose company produces Alice’s show and who becomes her lover; and James Marsden as his opportunistic brother who serves as the film’s Faye Dunaway counterpart as he encourages Alice’s crackpot decisions no matter the consequences.

Leave it to Joan Cusack—has she ever been less than terrific?—to be the one person to be able to divert our attention from Wiig as the show’s disgusted director who nevertheless occasionally engages in a lively on-air back and forth with Alice as a kind of unseen God-like persona from beyond.

SELECTED REVIEWS OF WELCOME TO ME

Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times: “Though some of the jabs ‘Me’ takes at reality TV are clever, the film, like Alice, tends to fracture at key moments. What makes it worth watching is Wiig. The comic actress is fearless in giving herself over to the most awkward and unbelievable situations. Her commitment makes even Alice’s absolute narcissism somehow nice.”

Drew McWeeny, Hitfix: “…a beautiful, sad, sweet and funny movie that deals honestly with mental illness while also earning big laughs and offering up some hard truths. And it helps that Kristen Wiig gives the best sustained performance of her entire career in the lead.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “…(M)alicious, hilarious and heartbreaking…one of the biggest movie surprises of 2015 so far.”

Oct 01

“The Skeleton Twins”: Each of Siblings Has Become Suicidal

According to the website for Craig Johnson‘s new film The Skeleton Twins, “Family is a cruel joke.”

Johnson places his emphasis here on the relationship between a brother and sister (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader). Critic Andrew O’Hehir calls this new film “a potent sibling dramedy,” and Jonathan Kim (The Huffington Post) says it’s “movie siblings (finally) done right.”

Wiig and Hader, both well known for their stints on Saturday Night Live, are not, however, playing characters who have fun-filled lives. We know right from the start, in fact, that each is having serious suicidal thoughts. More like “Saturday Night Dead,” quips Richard Corliss, Time.

Geoff Berkshire, Variety, explains the plot further:

Aspiring actor Milo lives in Los Angeles and is fresh out of a failed relationship, while Maggie is a New York dental hygenist in a seemingly happy marriage to gregarious guy’s-guy Lance (Luke Wilson). Of the two, Milo is the one who goes through with it, slitting his wrists in a bathtub. It’s a phone call informing her that her brother is in the hospital that pulls Maggie back from the brink. She rushes to his side and, after some initial awkwardness, the ice is broken by a memorable gag involving ‘Marley and Me,’ effectively demonstrating their shared sense of humor.

Turns out they’ve been estranged for 10 years. Nevertheless, Milo lets his sister bring him back to Nyack, New York, the area where they grew up.

THE SKELETON TWINS

Richard Corliss, Time: “Milo and Maggie endure lives of quiet desperation…Nearly from the start, it’s clear that they can relax only when playing the giddy games of their youth and that their sole soul mates are each other.”

Jessica Zack, San Francisco Chronicle: “The twins share a dark sense of humor, and both grapple with why and how their lives became detached not just from each other, but from the paths of promise they thought were in store for them.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Milo uses humor as a natural defense mechanism, even if it doesn’t always mask the grimace of discomfort, while the more outwardly thorny Maggie subjects herself and everyone around her to wild mood swings. ‘Landmines, dude,’ explains Lance, about the challenges of navigating his wife’s volatility.”

Things are gradually revealed in this film that would have had more impact on me, I think, if I hadn’t read the reviews beforehand. For the sake of those who need to have certain info, though, in order to assess whether to see a dysfunctional-family movie, I will give some basic specifics—starting now—including that their mom (Joanna Gleason) is New-Agey, self-involved, and unavailable and that their dad killed himself when they were teens.

For therapy buffs (is there such a thing?), we learn in a brief scene that Milo and Maggie were sent to a shrink way back when. And that they didn’t respond so well to continually being asked to journal, journal, journal.

MORE ABOUT MILO 

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “When he was 15, Milo was seduced by his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell), who is now back in the closet, with a 16-year-old son and trying to make his latest heterosexual relationship work. Milo’s return to Nyack unsettles this secret-laden educator, who now works in a bookstore.”

MORE ABOUT MAGGIE

Richard Corliss, Time: “She hides her grief behind a suburban housewife’s little festival of passive-aggressive behavior. In a particularly desperate moment, she screams into a pillow. And when she tells Lance ‘I love you,’ she means ‘I want to love you but can’t.” Lance, who everyone agrees is the most decent guy in the world, has a knitted-brow heartiness that grates on Maggie. Not his fault: his jock adolescence matured into love for this sweet, strange woman he can’t quite understand.”

MORE ABOUT LANCE

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “One of the most rewarding aspects of ‘Skeleton Twins’ is the unlikely alliance that sprouts between Lance and Milo, two guys who could hardly be more different. It would have been awfully easy to make Lance a homophobic jerk, but he doesn’t seem bothered by Milo’s sexuality at all. Instead he’s a decent, loving man with relatively modest aspirations, who has to come to grips with the fact that he barely knows the woman who claims to love him but has repeatedly lied to him.”

THE TRAILER

OVERALL REVIEWS

Jonathan Kim, Huffington Post: “The Skeleton Twins is very funny, but with touching and heartfelt scenes to go along with the film’s themes of suicide, depression, disappointment, and infidelity. And there are other themes that most adults, particularly siblings, will relate to — the fear that you peaked in high school, the disappointments of adulthood, wondering if you’re the most screwed up of your siblings, the difficulties of being true to yourself, and the questions and chasms left behind by an absent parent.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “…The Skeleton Twins gets it right. Warm, funny, heartfelt and even uplifting, the film is led by revelatory performances from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, both of them exploring rewarding new dramatic range without neglecting their mad comedic skills.”

Chris Nashawaty, ew.com: “Hader…is the film’s real surprise. It would have been easy for him to turn Milo into a gay cartoon like his after-hours alter ego Stefon. But he resists the temptation to go for easy laughs and broad strokes and delivers something darker and deeper. It’s a shockingly vulnerable performance, one of the best I’ve seen all year.”

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “…’The Skeleton Twins’ captures the way siblings develop their own unique comedic shorthands in a way few films ever have. Johnson also nails the flip side of that tight link: They’re capable of hurting each other like no one else can.”

Aug 28

“Hateship Loveship”: Quiet Caregiver with Interpersonal Issues

In Hateship Loveship, a movie adapted from a short story by Alice Munro and directed by Liza Johnson, quiet and naive Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig) starts working for a gruff elderly man, Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte). His teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), who lives with him, cruelly tricks this new caregiver into believing that her father Ken (Guy Pearce) has romantic interest in her.

An important piece of the back story: Sabitha’s mom is dead because of an incident in which Ken was drunk at the wheel.

Justin Chang, Variety, explains how Sabitha’s con has roots in Ken’s kindness to Johanna:

…(H)e leaves the new housekeeper a note of encouragement — a nice gesture that Johanna, unaccustomed to being treated kindly or flirted with, takes it upon herself to answer. But her letter is intercepted by Sabitha and her troublemaking best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), who, rather than mailing it as promised, write back to Johanna pretending to be Ken. With the unthinking malice that can come so easily to teens with technology at their disposal, the girls initiate a friendly and increasingly intimate email correspondence with the unsuspecting Joanna, who becomes thoroughly smitten with the man she thinks is keeping up his end of the conversation.

Connie Ogle, Miami Herald, explains why this movie has relevance today: “…(R)evisiting Nobel Prize-winner Munro’s story in this era of ‘catfishing’ makes a lot of sense: People are no less desperate for connection than they ever have been.”

Other notable characters in the film include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ken’s drug-addicted girlfriend and Christine Lahti as a bank employee who might become a romantic interest for Mr. McCauley.

Watch the trailer below:

JOHANNA

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com:

She is so unworldly that when she is told to ‘set up a password’ at the library in order to use the computer, she asks the librarian, ‘My own word?’ She has worked in the service of others, as a housemaid/nanny/nurse since she was 15. Her voice is soft and flat, and when she speaks, she uses functional practical language. She has feelings about the families with whom she lives, but you would never guess any of it looking at her face. She has no self-pity. And so, when Johanna suddenly awakens to love, early on in ‘Hateship Loveship,’ it is both electrifying and perilous. She is not used to being overwhelmed with feelings, sexual and romantic, and she doesn’t know how to behave; she doesn’t know where to put it all.

Justin ChangVariety:It’s an on-the-nose metaphor, perhaps, but for this quietly capable woman, cleaning house isn’t just a responsibility but also an escape, a form of therapy, and a far more practical solution than sulking or lashing out.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “…(W)e’ve never seen a protagonist quite like Johanna, who on the one hand personifies female self-abnegation at its most domesticated, but on the other embodies the sheer will at its most stubborn. She knows the value of elbow grease, whether she’s redeeming a dirty kitchen floor or even a scruffier human soul.”

KEN

Sheila O’Malleyrogerebert.com:

His kindness to Johanna is not targeted or creepy, but automatic and casual. He is filled with self-loathing over his mistakes: his drug addiction, being a terrible dad unable to take care of his daughter, and knowing that everyone thinks he is a loser. But watch how he approaches McCauley about a loan for the motel he wants to fix up in Chicago…Ken is a guy who buys his own lines, at least while he is saying them. It’s a complex character, in other words, and ‘Hateship Loveship’ lets him be complex. It doesn’t ask us to come down on one side or the other. His actions are often reprehensible. And sometimes he is beautifully warm and accepting. Both are true.

OVERALL REVIEWS (Are Mixed)

Justin Chang, Variety: “…(T)his delicate and absorbing character study gets some unique performance mileage out of Wiig, infusing a potentially morose role with subtle oddball touches that keep things amusingly off-balance.”

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “In the short story on which the film is based, Alice Munro writes of Johanna: ‘It was the rare person who took to her, and she’d been aware of that for a long time.”‘ Wiig has absorbed that character description until Johanna seems as though a role she was born to play. There is not a hint of condescension in her portrayal. You worry for her. You are embarrassed for her. You feel protective; you wince at her openness. You keep discovering how much you have under-estimated her. It’s a great performance.”

Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News: “Too bad ‘blahship’ isn’t an option. Because that sums it up.”

Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times: “Things really go off the rails as the director starts tying up the loose ends Munro left so wonderfully unraveled. ‘Hateship Loveship’ needed many things, but a Hollywood ending wasn’t one of them.”

Sep 06

“Girl Most Likely”: For Starters, Kristen Wiig Stages Fake Suicide Attempt

The critics have been unkind to Girl Most Likely, a film in which Imogene (Kristen Wiig), a Manhattan playwright, has been rejected by her boyfriend, a job, and some friends, and loses her apartment. To get the ex’s attention and/or sympathy, she stages a fake suicide attempt, which backfires. She winds up in the hospital, and the discharge plan involves living with her estranged mother Zelda (Annette Bening), a gambling addict.

Or, Another Movie Description…

Sara Stewart, New York Post:

This lazy comedy plays like a round of Quirky Indie Mad Libs: Kristen Wiig is a struggling New York (blank) who freaks out when (blank) and ends up back in Nowheresville, (blank), with her trashy mom who (blank) and her weird brother who (blank). (Playwright; she loses her job and boyfriend; New Jersey; wears a lot of leopard print; wants to be a human hermit crab.)

Surely the Cast Makes This Worth Seeing?

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “‘Girl Most Likely’ is the kind of movie destined to become the answer to the rhetorical question, ‘With a cast this good, how bad can it be?’ You might think that any film featuring Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss (not to mention supporting turns by Bob Balaban, Natasha Lyonne and June Diane Raphael) would have some redeeming qualities, but you would be incorrect.”

Glenn WhippLos Angeles Times: “The moments that do work tend to be small, character-based pauses in the wackiness that allow a gifted performer like Wiig the chance to open the window a crack and let in a little fresh air.”

Tom LongDetroit News: “Wiig keeps a smile on your face throughout, but nothing ever feels authentic, and by the movie’s end, obvious construction has flattened all feeling.”

Are There Any Interesting Characterizations That Defy One Unified Mental Health Assessment? (That Would Be Ralph, Imogene’s Brother)

Sara StewartNew York Post: “Broadway regular Christopher Fitzgerald brings the Zack Galifianakis-y edge as Imogene’s brother, Ralph, a mess of vaguely sketched agoraphobic dysfunction.”

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “Mentally challenged kid brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) wears oversized T-shirts that say ‘Crab Villa’ (emphasizing his obsession with all things crustacean) and crawls around on the floor inside a fiberglass mollusk shell.”

Other descriptions from top reviewers include “socially awkward,” “unusual,” “stunted,” “simple,” “intellectually disabled,” “special-needs,” and “unique.”

The Trailer:

What Went Wrong?

The opinion of Theresa Basile (Bitch Magazine) is by and large echoed in many other reviews:

Because there was a lot to enjoy about Girl Most Likely, I tried not to be overly critical just because it wasn’t the movie I expected. In the wise words of Marlo Stanfield from The Wire, ‘You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.’ It’s not the film’s fault that I expected something different after reading the premise. I tried to judge the movie for what it was, not for what I wanted it to be.

But even after putting my expectations aside, I couldn’t help but notice two glaring flaws in the film: 1) Imogene isn’t likable and 2) the story trivializes suicide…

I don’t think I need to explain why portraying a faked suicide as a mere sitcom quirk is a problem, do I? Good.

 

One More Flaw Definitely Worth Mentioning: The Script

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “The story is dull, hollow and almost painful to sit through.”

Connie Ogle, Miami Herald: “Girl Most Likely is a case of good actors in serious need of worthwhile material.”

Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Times: “… (A) tonal jumble, veering between forced farce and tired, rom-com beats, with little feeling real or true.”

Jul 20

Spoofing Physical Appearance: Since When Is It Okay?

Is it ever okay to make fun of someone’s physical appearance? Not only that, but to laugh a lot while doing it? I think most of us would readily agree that it’s certainly not. And we wouldn’t want it done to us either.

Then, why are certain spoofs on TV so acceptable and popular? The recurring Saturday Night Live sketch, for example, that features a tiny-handed Kristen Wiig in a singing sister act on The Lawrence Welk Show. Although her differences aren’t just physical, they happen to be the ones you first notice.

Do we laugh at her physical appearance because we don’t automatically link her to anyone we know, or don’t think we ever could know, in real life? If that’s so, contrast this with SNL‘s Fred Armisen imitating former New York Governor David Paterson; he exaggeratedly and clumsily bumbles around because of his inability to see and has a significant speech impediment. Isn’t such mockery of traits that are out of this real person’s control in bad taste? YouTube thinks so—this SNL sketch is blocked due to offensive material.

So, real-person Governor Paterson no, not-real-person on “Lawrence Welk yes?

How about another possible explanation for the latter’s laughability? While other characters in this recurrent sketch react at times with revulsion to Wiig’s physical appearance, she remains completely oblivious and seemingly blissful. (How wonderful might it be if all of us lacked such self-consciousness and actually felt so okay in our skins.)

A predecessor to the Wiig sketch is a Frasier episode from 1998 called “Roz and the Schnoz,” in which the character played by Peri Gilpin meets the parents of her baby’s father for the first time. Although some thought it was wrong to laugh at this, many differed. Update, 9/4/15: this video clip is no longer available.

Again, 1) the couple is exaggeratedly schnozzed in a way we’ve probably never seen or will ever see, and 2) there’s something about the whole group, psychiatrist brothers included, being unable to resist laughing while the targeted couple remains totally unaware that anyone would have reason to find them different, or…let’s say…differently schnozzed.

An example of the opposite type of situation, i.e., realistic insecurity about our looks, was seen in an episode of the TV dramedy Scrubs in which Elliot and J.D. (Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke), both doctors, are each more vulnerable than they’d like to think they are to others’ judgments about perceived flaws.

In this clip, the back story is that psychiatrist Molly (Heather Graham) has disagreed with Elliot about a patient’s care. Does the ensuing scene make you laugh? Or is this a more serious matter? Might we identify with these characters a little too much? Feel their pain?

By the way, a totally different matter for another day? Molly: “‘Cause one of the reasons I became a therapist is I’ve always been able to zero in on a person’s greatest insecurity.”