Wilson is the third film to be based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. Clowes was responsible for Ghost World and Art School Confidential, both of which were made into films. The former still maintains a cult following, and the latter wasn’t so great, but it still holds that unique outsider worldview that coats all of Clowes’s graphic novels. Fans of his work are going to appreciate Wilson for its effort, but viewers unfamiliar with his oeuvre are going to think this is some silly indie about a cranky old white guy.
The film fuddles around for the first quarter of an hour following Wilson through his day-to-day interactions. Wilson (Woody Harrelson) doesn’t really have anyone. He lives alone, has a dog, but no apparent job. In fact, when other people discuss their jobs, he’s fast to become bored, putting on snores and begging them to tell him what’s “Really going on.” But it’s never really disclosed what he does for a living, if anything. His apartment is cluttered with towers of paperback novels. Is he some kind of hack writer? At one point, he mentions his father wrote a book on Melville that was highly regarded. Is he is living off the royalties?
Through a chance encounter, this sad sack discovers his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), is back living in the area working as a waitress at a country club. Strung out after years of drug abuse, and with nowhere else to turn, Pippi forms a last-resort relationship with Wilson. After a drunken night together, she reveals to him the child he thought she aborted nearly two decades ago was actually given up for adoption. As the two embark on a mission to find the child, hilarity is supposed to ensue. Right?
Sometimes comedies take a while to get going, but this one never picks up speed. The moments that are supposed to be funny fall with a thud. The film is filled with scenes where Wilson encroaches on strangers, starting off like he’s just making small talk before he suddenly unloads his personal problems and gripes about the world. It happens so many times that the audience begins to see them coming. An outside cafe? Wilson is going to ask to sit at someone’s table. A commuter asleep on a train car? Wilson will wake him up and force him into a conversation the stranger doesn’t want to have. That guy at the other end of the row of urinals? You bet Wilson is going to sidle up to him.
Once the couple’s daughter, Claire, comes into the picture, the movie should have started sizzling. Played by newcomer Isabella Amara, Claire, the couple’s lost child, turns out to be a plus-sized young woman with dyed-black hair and glasses and definitely not an apple that fell far from the Wilson-Pippi tree. Raised by an upper-class couple as an afterthought, Claire is ostracized by her peers, and she seems to be heading toward a lonesome existence just like her biological father. While it is refreshing to add another viewpoint to shed light on this erstwhile couple’s shortcomings, the relationships between ma, pa, and newfound daughter don’t really go all the way to reveal anything new about them.
Dern’s Pippi is a middle-aged woman looking back on three-plus decades of addiction and picking the wrong men. Maybe because her backstory is a little more fleshed out, her character is actually more intriguing than Wilson’s. However, Dern ends up having only one scene that she doesn’t have to share with Harrelson yammering on and stealing the focus. Anytime the film seems like it’s going to delve into one of the other characters, it ditches opportunities and instead pulls the focus back to Wilson. What about Claire’s story? We’re given only snippets. She does go through a transformation, and Amara is a formidable actress, but, again, everything about this film services the story of Wilson.
Wilson is like an over-the-hill, sobered-up Roy Munson, whom Harrelson played in the 1996 Farrelly brothers’ comedy Kingpin, where Harrelson played a small Iowa town bowling hero. Having been promised the world with his talent, he let it fly away from him, resulting in years of drunken degradation. There are parallels between Wilson and Munson, only the comedy worked so much better in Kingpin, probably because that film allowed itself to go so low with its characters. Munson had everything to be bitter about. Harrelson had scorn on his face throughout; in Wilson, he’s, maybe, awaiting better direction? The problem with the jokes in Wilson is the tragedy befallen this aging man just isn’t terrible enough. Of course, it’s hard being single. Getting old is a pain, and the rapid advancements of technology are a constant annoyance. It’s easy to empathize with Wilson. What’s difficult is feeling sorry for him.
Director Craig Johnson also made The Skeleton Twins, which tried to tackle high drama with a comedic cast but ended up not working out so well. Here he had a rich resource in the work of Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the screenplay. Clowes’s unique, off-kilter vision is something that very few (Terry Zwigoff) are able to bring to life onscreen. Johnson has a great cast and a great writer, but this Wilson is better off cast away.