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Welcome to Madness: Kristen Wiig in ‘Welcome to Me’ and Carey Mulligan in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

In Welcome to Me, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) hits the California lottery for $86 million, moves into a room at a Palm Desert casino hotel, and buys herself a morning-television show on a budget cable channel, starring her. That’s not all. She ceases taking her antipsychotic medication and offers to bribe her therapist (Tim Robbins) into declaring her sane. Her buying the show — she calls it Welcome to Me — is really a benign takeover of a cheesy health infomercial. The intense host, Gabe (Wes Bentley), can’t resist her. His brother and coproducer, Rich (James Marsden), can’t resist her money.

What makes this movie funny, in part, is the reaction to Alice among the show’s staff. When she whips out her giant checkbook to pay the production costs, the show’s designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) mouths something exasperated across a conference-room table to the director (Joan Cusack), who mouths something back. When discussing the length of the show, Cusack’s character asks Alice, “Are we talking about a half an hour?” Alice purrs immediately, “Two,” as in a two-hour show, all about her. Every time the film cuts away to a head buried in a pair of hands or to a dropped jaw, you laugh. The crew can’t believe this woman, but she believes in herself. Alice wants to make her entrance on a swan boat. Her cooking segment features a meatloaf shaped and iced like a cake. She rides a bicycle around the small but magnificent set (apparently Leigh’s character is good at her job), in front of a smattering of people in the studio audience. Alice and her best friend, Gina (Linda Cardellini), watch her lottery press conference with their hands over their gaping mouths. When she tells the press that “I’ve been using masturbation as a sedative since 1991” and the broadcast terminates coverage, she’s irate: “They cut me off!”

What you’re never actually laughing at is Alice’s borderline personality disorder, even though her illness defines her priorities. The money exacerbates her narcissism. The show gives it a stage. This is a smart, perversely sympathetic movie that’s neither a farce nor a satire — of television or mental health. No one expresses cruelty toward Alice. The money buys her their tolerance. The screenplay, by Eliot Laurence, could have gone further or crazier. It could have turned into something like Network, The Truman Show, or Nightcrawler, a tsunami-cesspool of media criticism. The surprise here is how it’s content with and confident in studying this woman’s character, watching her indulge herself and unwittingly hurt others — including the dogs she blissfully surgically neuters during a climactic theme week. But her obnoxious hazardousness gets  redemption from Wiig’s performance and the way the movie treats Alice’s state of mind. 

Part of the show involves dramatic reenactments of traumatic incidents from Alice’s life (“Someone’s Been Tampering With My Makeup Bag”), starring actors wearing tags that say “Alice.” She interrupts these scenes with stage instructions and raw emotion, overwhelmed by the realness of her self-psychodrama. One outburst ends with the credits rolling and a daytime-talk-show saxophone playing as she sobs. There is a weird moral trust in moments like that. We know what’s funny: absurdist television, not Alice’s instability. Away from Saturday Night Live, you realize that Wiig’s ideas of what’s funny are too idiosyncratic for where Hollywood comedy is right now. Alice wants The Oprah Winfrey Show and winds up with a version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse that’s in Wiig’s comfort zone. The show becomes something that would attract hipsters, college kids, and magazine editors. I’d watch this, the way people watched Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and I watched IFC’s puppets-in-the-kitchen show, Food Party: in amused disbelief.

Shira Piven has directed this movie with a deft but perfectly zany touch. You can imagine other films playing up the darkness, punching the jokes over and over and over. Piven stresses the human connections among these people. Most of the scenes are searching for the light. Ten years ago somebody might have tried this with Steve Carell or Zach Galifianakis, but that movie probably would have lacked Piven’s everyday subtlety. How she keeps the film from falling into Saturday Night Live sketchiness might be its most alluring mystery, since the entire movie teeters on the verge of one-dimensionality. Idiosyncrasy has gone to TV, which Wiig, for now, has left to make a series of independent movies, some of which, like Hateship Loveship, expose her limitations as an actor. She has comedic range that might be inversely proportional to her dramatic skill. You don’t know what she’s taking seriously and what she’s not, and often there isn’t enough depth to whatever she’s doing to obviate the need for a distinction. Those limitations work in a dramatic comedy like this. She can be bravely crazy here and have that craziness affect you because it’s situated within a woman’s clearly established psychopathology. Most of the dialogue needs her droll, socially unaware delivery: “It’s just a restraining order,” Alice says at some point, “it’s not a big deal.” Wiig leans on that hypnotized-teenager speaking voice she’s perfected — it’s full of air and girlish droning, like she’s floating up the stairway to heaven toward David Cassidy. It’s seductive, but in the way a wrecking ball seduces a window.

This is an art-house film that’s probably too strange for the megaplexes. Watching Wiig weep in the recording booth as she attempts to sing the show’s theme song or devour that meatloaf cake, I wondered who else could have played this fractured a personality and still be this sad and this funny. Earlier this year, Julianne Moore was even more deluded and fame-obsessed in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. And there are movies with more commercial ambitions that try a version of this, movies that have Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell — who, with Adam McKay (who’s married to Piven), produced this film. All Ferrell’s done at the movies is further unleash his id. This is what Wiig does, too, but here she’s more artistically effective. The writing and directing and other actors are there to catch her. You’re not simply amused by her. You’re moved by her. That’s well left of American comedy’s center right now. But Wiig’s performance here argues that it doesn’t have to be.

far-from-the-madding-crowd-hpFox Searchlight Pictures

What need is there for a two-hour version of any Thomas Hardy novel? He didn’t write potboilers. He made romantic tragedies that, onscreen, would seem to benefit from some air between unhappinesses. Turning a lush 400-page book into a film that lasts 119 minutes results in something feeling off. This new adaptation of Hardy’s 1874 book Far From the Madding Crowd is, in part, a BBC production, but without enough of the BBC’s qualities.

The company is notorious for its brown-nosing translations of great works of English literature. In its fealty to the source material, you can feel the commas. But that’s a good risk-free model: Treat the book like a blueprint. Otherwise, you’ve got an episodic movie like the new Madding Crowd, which acts as if it’s late for a train. None of the book’s cosmic ironies — its spell-casting — takes hold. So what you’re left with is an arrangement of coincidences around the friendship between Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) and Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). He’s a sheep farmer who, in a shepherding catastrophe, lost his flock and his financial stability. His love for her isn’t as mutual as she requires. Plus, with this farm, the arrangement is all wrong: Her social station outranks his. She hires him to run the farm and mistakes his opinion and advice for him trying to run her life. For instance, he thinks it wise to consider marrying William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a nervous-seeming, most-eligible farmer, and not Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), the young, caddish soldier who infatuates her. Gabriel’s advice gets him fired (“Where does he get his airs?” she huffs). But only temporarily. Her goats get bloated, and guess who’s got the know-how to safely release their gas?

In any case, she marries Frank, who proves to be a drunken, macho disaster, whom we know to be in love with Bathsheba’s former servant, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple). Frank and Fanny were supposed to be married, but she skips to the wrong church on their wedding day, effectively jilting him, leaving only a bitter, careless ruin. The movie, which David Nicholls wrote and Thomas Vinterberg, a Dane, directed, does retain some of the jaundiced Hardy cosmos. It’s got some captivatingly soft, floating pans toward the actors’ faces. And the opening scenes of Bathsheba whipping the farm into shape and conspiring to mischief with her current servant, Liddy (Jessica Barden, who’s terrific), are absorbingly quick. There’s a church scene in which Bathsheba makes strong eye contact with Gabriel and Boldwood. In other words, it’s watchable.

You can sense Hardy’s influence in everything from Gone With the Wind to Cold Mountain (“Everdene” has made it all the way down to The Hunger Games), and this movie has Mulligan doing unromantic field work that makes you think of Sally Field in Places in the Heart and Jessica Lange in Country. Mulligan finally gets to spend a movie armored in strength rather than neurosis and shrewishness. In the past, either her movies haven’t known what to do with her or she hasn’t known what to do with her movies. Here she has enough to play, cutting a classic movie pose in close-ups and excellent costumes, including the most beautiful leather jacket I’ve seen on an actress in a movie. In a 1967 version, directed with lots of languor and era-appropriate trippiness, by John Schlesinger, Julie Christie interpreted Bathsheba as a kind of conceited dandy. I prefer Mulligan’s rationality.

In Schlesinger’s movie, Terence Stamp played Frank. He entire performance seemed to be in his spine. He was like a walking hard-on. He was ridiculous — and ridiculously sexy. Sturridge is flaccid by comparison. His casting throws off romantic logic. Schoenaerts’s physical sturdiness and Sheen’s humorous ardor are more inherently attractive than anything Sturridge is up to. But Mulligan sells being thrilled by him for as long she has to. Besides, when Frank’s in the picture, all you’re thinking is, Where’s Fanny — where’s Temple? Not onscreen enough. Temple flits through her scenes like a doomed Tinkerbell. She’s such an intriguing actor that she threatens to capsize any movie she’s in.

Meanwhile, the movie rightly idealizes Schoenaerts as the picture of loyalty. He has the face of the family dog. Schoenaerts is from Belgium and can seem simultaneously bigger and slighter than he actually appears to be. We should get used to looking at him, since he’s scheduled to appear in eight or nine American (or Americanish) movies in the next year. He can’t do what Sheen can — there’s no elasticity or apparent emotion that comes off of him. Here, when he speaks at length (not too often), the editing tends to cut to whomever’s in the scene with him, the way you would had you cast Jean-Claude Van Damme in this part. In English, what Schoenaerts does is not quite acting — just rigorous, alluring embodiment. And that can feel so much stronger than language.

The last 30 minutes are a tumble of events (murder, jail, emotional submission) that make you appreciate the BBC and PBS Masterpiece approach to great novels. (British television aired a so-so production in 1998.) With Vinterberg’s version, so much is happening that is sudden and shocking and strange. The film’s rush to a romantic ending recasts it in cruel insensitivity. This wasn’t Hardy’s greatest novel but the first of his best. The reason the movie’s violently soggy at the end is because that’s when Hardy opens the floodgates. But the book manages to generously bestow enough grace (and comedy) upon bad romance that tragedy takes hold. Only with a final flourish in the last pages does the tragedy relent. This movie, though, doesn’t leave time to savor the peculiarity of what’s transpired. Hardy convinced with the warmth of his writing. Vinterberg lacks a cinematic equivalent. The movie works, but that’s about all it does.