‘Welcome to Me’ Wiig plays mentally ill woman with compassion, demonstrates how to spend mega millions egotistically

Wes Bentley and Kristen Wiig star in “Welcome To Me.”

“Welcome to Me” is the name of a television show created by Alice Klieg, a California woman — divorced, unemployed, bipolar, off her medication — who financed it with money she won in the state lottery. Alice is the program’s guiding creative spirit and also its star, so the content reflects her interests: low-“carbohydrant” cooking, swan figurines, the neutering of dogs, re-enacted episodes of childhood humiliation and, above all, herself.

She is both unstable and self-absorbed, and although she has spent years studying the broadcast work of Oprah Winfrey on VHS, Alice’s on-air gestures and intonations can be as awkward as her self-help pronouncements are bizarre. From the start, “Welcome to Me,” shot in front of a sparse audience in the studios of a struggling infomercial outfit, seems to be headed for disaster.

Based on that description, you might be tempted to say the same about “Welcome to Me,” which is the name of a new movie directed by Shira Piven from a screenplay by Eliot Laurence and starring Kristen Wiig as Alice. Just describing the film is equivalent to listing the many ways it could have gone wrong. To build a comedy around the predicament of a mentally ill main character is to risk either gross insensitivity or a maudlin romanticism that is just as offensive. To take up the subject of subprime television is to court banality and bad faith. But “Welcome to Me,” while not perfect, is the opposite of a disaster. By turns touching, amusing and genuinely disturbing, it defies expectations and easy categorization, forgoing obvious laughs and cheap emotional payoffs in favor of something much odder and more interesting.

That “something” has a lot to do with Wiig, who embraces Alice’s outlandish notions and cross-wired emotions with compassion and integrity. As a sketch-comedy performer and a supporting player in movies like “Date Night” and “Anchorman 2,” Wiig has proved herself to be a resourceful and disciplined goofball. She is also a subtle and serious actress, a fact that has manifested itself, in very different ways, in “Bridesmaids,” “Hateship Loveship” and the Sundance favorite “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” opening in August.

In “Welcome to Me,” Wiig is, to some extent, having it both ways, using her natural silliness to draw us into a complicated psychological reality. In the studio audience for a demonstration of the power of algae-based smoothies — her first foray into television — Alice stares into the camera with unnerving directness, looking like a freshly plucked owl. In private and in public, she says wildly inappropriate things in a glassy, self-satisfied monotone.

Once her own show is underway, she veers between studied, Oprahesque radiance and tearful hysteria. Audience members (including a curious graduate student played by Thomas Mann) don’t know whether they’re witnessing sly performance art or a slow-motion trainwreck. They may giggle or cringe, but they can’t look away.

And as you watch the movie, you may experience similar confusion. Piven favors bright colors and tonal understatement, creating a fascinating, occasionally dizzying discrepancy between what the movie looks as if it’s doing and what it’s actually doing. At times it seems as if the director herself isn’t quite sure, but more often she succeeds in controlling the ambiguity. Outrageous and improbable situations — like the news conference at which Alice accepts her lottery winnings — are presented matter-of-factly. Jokes are whispered or implied, rather than telegraphed and punched up. Are we even supposed to be laughing?

Alice may be ridiculous, but the point of Wiig’s performance is not to hold her up to ridicule. It’s to make sense of her suffering and find the logic in her experience of herself and the world around her. The people in Alice’s life — including the producers and crew members who cash her checks and help realize her peculiar media vision — don’t treat her like a freak or an object of pity. She has a best friend (Linda Cardellini) and an ex-husband (Alan Tudyk) who care about her and a therapist (Tim Robbins) who does his best to help her. All of them try to map the fluid boundaries of her personality. Is she potentially dangerous to herself and others — or merely eccentric? Is she a sad oddball or a kind of genius?

“Welcome to Me,” though it may at times look like a case study in quirk, is really the portrait of an artist. Alice’s pain, like everyone else’s, is ordinary and specific. Her way of experiencing it is what defines her condition as a disease, and without minimizing or making light of pathology, the film suggest that it can also be a source of meaning, and not only for Alice. The brothers who own the studio — Gabe (Wes Bentley), a sensitive infomercial host, and Rich (James Marsden), a sunny, practical businessman — come to appreciate what she does, even as they are frequently alarmed by her on-air behavior. So does the producer (Joan Cusack), who knows effective television when she sees it.

The movie refuses to condescend to Alice or to her chosen medium. The less prestigious kinds of television — shopping shows, daytime self-help series, off-brand reality spectacles — have a way of simultaneously inviting and defeating irony.

In exchange for attention, however distracted or derisive, they offer therapy. The spirit-affirming gobbledygook that Alice spouts is not all that different from what is dispensed by her saner real-life counterparts, who collect rather than pay out millions of dollars for the chance to share their wisdom with the rest of us. But like them, she provides what the people on the other side of the screen really want: a human face, a flicker of recognition, a bit of company in our misery.