Woody Harrelson is your friendly neighborhood misanthrope in softhearted graphic novel adaptation
Directed by Craig Johnson
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines
In his own mind, Wilson is an optimist. He figures cavemen got by with little more than a roof over their head, and he’s got ... well, at least that much. He thinks of himself as a people person, in that he’s constantly fascinated by the human condition. But in actual, real-world practice, poor Wilson is a miserable crank, a condescending misanthrope who can’t keep his big mouth shut. Ruthlessly honest, he needles into the lives of those around him, offering sincere but unsolicited (and frequently unwelcome) advice. Wilson thinks of himself as a smart, observant, helpful person. Pointing out your flaws is just his way of contributing to society. But the fact that he hasn’t got a single friend left in the world tells you something about the man.
Envisioned, originally, in a series of one-page gag strips by noted indie cartoonist Daniel Clowes, the garrulous character now finds himself embodied by Woody Harrelson in an oddball indie comedy. Clowes’ microcosmic, Gen X-approved graphic novels have been adapted previously in the films Ghost World and Art School Confidential. His melding of the kitschy, the grotesque and the mundane has earned him a loyal cult following. Wilson isn’t likely to grow the cult in any sizable way, but it should find a few devotees among the already inducted.
Wilson, the film, features a screenplay by Clowes, who has shaped his old character study into something resembling a coherent narrative. The film is credibly directed by Craig Johnson, who’s garnered a moment or two of attention for his micro-budget indies True Adolescents and The Skeleton Twins. Though Harrelson—a normally genial, personality-heavy actor—would seem like an unusual choice to play this neurotic windbag, he puts a great deal of effort into shaping this well-meaning jerk of a human being. This collaboration results in something that you could not, exactly, call “likable.” This is a universe populated by miserable, acerbic people—few of whom ever graduate to the level of likable. But if you gravitate toward bleak outlooks and black humor, Wilson might be right up your alley.
When we meet our man Wilson, the St. Paul/Minneapolis native is trying (badly) to connect with his fellow humans. But berating bus passengers and stalking women isn’t exactly the best way to make friends. At the end of the day, the only being Wilson can tolerate (and vice-versa) is his loyal dog, Pepper (a sign, at least, that he’s not a completely heartless dude). One day, Wilson gets word that his estranged father is dying from lung cancer. Wilson races to his bedside, imagining all manner of emotional closure. But dad passes away without saying a word. The incident shakes Wilson up a bit, and he decides he needs more out of life. Unfortunately, being Wilson, he goes about this in the worst possible way—by hunting down the ex-wife who ran out on him 17 years ago.
Turns out Pippi (a wonderfully addled Laura Dern) has recently drifted back into town. A recovering drug addict, she’s now working at a local restaurant. Again, imagining some sort of happy reunion, Wilson shows up at the restaurant and confronts her. It, of course, does not pan out how Wilson thought—particularly when she informs him that she did not, as he believed, have an abortion after leaving him. Turns out she gave birth to their daughter and gave her up for adoption. As you should probably expect by now, Wilson concocts the brilliant idea of tracking down his daughter and becoming a loving part of her new life. This is, of course, one more self-inflicted wound waiting to happen. Daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) is a chubby, unhappy emo teen, who has clearly inherited her father’s thorny personality—and any reunion between these three broken people is bound to end up in disaster.
Though Clowes has crafted a much more linear storyline for his character, the narrative remains loose and episodic. Wilson’s Sisyphean attempts to get his life together form the backbone of the film, but there’s not a lot of reach beyond the simple “curmudgeon gets less curmudgeonly.” The humor employed here is angry and uncomfortable (and frequently quite funny, if you’re so inclined). But the script stops short of plumbing the crushing, existential loneliness at the center of it all. Viewers only have to take a glance at the works of bleak suburban satirist Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling) to see where this balance of depression and twisted humor could have ventured. Dark and misanthropic as it is, Wilson doesn’t go far enough—pushing through that black envelope into truly revelatory territory. Instead, director and screenwriter pull back on the throttle, holding out hope for a sentimental ending to it all that feels ... well, out of character.
Daniel Clowes’ work is worthy of deeper study. A larger audience—one provided by a wide-release film—is a welcome start to that. But adapting the vignette-filled Wilson to film was a tricky proposition to begin with. Harrelson tackles the character with as much sardonic charisma as possible. The film, however, doesn’t provide quite enough topical heft to the world around him. Peter Boyle in Joe had drug-dealing hippies. Carroll O’Connor in “All in the Family” had a feminist daughter and a liberal son-in-law. A cantankerous crank needs a reason to rage, and all Wilson offers up is countless reasons not to.