Wilson is directed by Craig Johnson from a graphic novel by cartoonist Daniel Clowes and stars Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer and Isabella Amara.
This indie slice-of-life dramedy starts by introducing Wilson, a bearded, out-of-work, grumpy oldster who isn’t exactly a narcissist or misanthrope, but who could best be described as someone who doesn’t play well with others. He introduces us to himself by saying “Remember when we were kids and life was all there in front of us?” but this quickly squelches this kind of optimism by proclaiming that civilization is a scam and you can’t really count on anyone. Wilson is the kind of person who laments the lack of connection in our modern age but can’t see how his relentless intrusions into other people’s personal spaces and lives thorugh a sort of enforced friendliness creates the antagonism that drives people away from him. His best and only real friend is his dog Pepper. Anyone else who is around him for any length of time can’t get away from him fast enough.
I don’t want to give a bunch of spoilers for this movie by laying out its somewhat random and haphazard plot, but it does involve Wilson reuniting with the ex-wife who left him 17 years before, as played by Laura Dern, and finding out that the daughter he thought she had aborted all those years ago is actually alive and well and living with her adoptive parents. This proceeds to go in wholly unexpected directions which I won’t get into but which are about as random as life itself.
A hero’s journey this movie most certainly is not. I think a film like this was a lot more fun for the actors making it than for the audience watching it. I said this was based on Daniel Clowes’ first non-serialized graphic novel and he who wrote the screenplay from his work. Honestly, I’d never heard of the man before seeing this movie and his work is not really the sort of thing that appeals to me. It’s a kind of nihilism to an n-th degree, relieved with moments of mild optimism and humor, a pessimist’s view of life which is not entirely unjustified but is a bit of a difficult pill to swallow in entertainment, a medium which has as one of its primary purposes the idea of escapism. There’s certainly no reason for movies to not reflect the harsh realities of life, but potential viewers of this film are warned that the story line is unconventional and does not end with anything you would describe as a satisfying payoff. In fact, the end is so abrupt that most people in the audience of the screening I went to were sitting wondering what just happened as the credits were rolling.
It’s completely a matter of opinion if an actor like Woody Harrelson is fit to play the part of the cynical curmudgeon, but with his unkempt beard, big glasses and awkwardly stupid smile at all the wrong moments, I think he pulls this one off just fine. The character of Wilson is certainly an odd bird and it’s really hard from one scene to the next to predict what he is going to do or say. You ache for him as you watch his painful attempts to relate to others and some of the brutally honest things that come out of his mouth justifiably infuriate the people around him, yet in the next scene he has enough clarity to break down emotional barriers by saying just the right thing at just the right moment. It’s an odd experience to watch that, never sure what he’s going to do or what’s going to happen to him as a result, but I did enjoy watching Harrelson bring this character to life.
I didn’t particularly find the main focus of the movie, his relationship with his estranged daughter, to be very interesting and that was a major pitfall. If you are going to put characters on a screen and expect to follow them around for an hour or two, there has to be some kind of emotional connection or interest. Isabella Amara, who plays Wilson’s daughter Claire, never makes that connection so I really couldn’t have cared less what she was saying or doing. I don’t think that is Amara’s fault; her performance was fine but the way she was written, she may as well have been a piece of furniture.
Laura Dern has a better part as Wilson’s ex-wife Pippa, a damaged woman who is trying to get her life back together after years of self-abuse. Dern invests a lot into this, but again the writing really fails to have her make a close connection with the audience. I’m quite sure Clowes does this on purpose and to him, this is some kind of reflection of how life and people really are, but that hasn’t been my experience.
I think the best way I can put it is that the character of Wilson is not just an Archie Bunker/Asperger’s stereotype but the rest of the characters in this movie are and so they really just seem like cardboard cutouts who look like they should have three dimensions but ultimately are just there so Wilson can say certain things or react in certain ways.
All things considered, I didn’t really like this film and I don’t think too many people who see it will. Despite a good, solid performance by Harrelson and competent directing from Craig Johnson, I’m giving Wilson a rating of Pretty Bad. I think audiences will connect with Harrelson and laugh in all the right places but will walk out in the end wondering what just happened and why they spent 101 minutes trying to care. I’d love to hear your opinions on this, so if you see this let me know in the comments what you thought.
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