Woody Harrelson stars as Wilson, a lonely, neurotic and hilariously honest middle-aged misanthrope who reunites with his estranged wife (Laura Dern) and gets a shot at happiness when he learns he has a teenage daughter (Isabella Amara) he has never met. In his uniquely outrageous and slightly twisted way, he sets out to connect with her.
Twenty-first century pop culture has embraced comic book characters in movies and television; comics themselves, however, remain somewhat more marginal. But while superhero comics struggle with falling readerships and a stagnant market, the flip side of the coin – what used to be known as independent comics – have firmly established themselves as a mainstay of the literary world. American cartoonist Daniel Clowes has been leading the charge, with his 90s serial Ghost World (which appeared in his comic Eightball) earning both critical plaudits and a successful film adaptation by Terry Zwigoff. A second collaboration between the pair, adapting Clowes’ short story Art School Confidential, was less successful; this big screen version of Clowes’ book Wilson isn’t exactly a comeback, but after a decade since his last adaptation it’s definitely been a long wait.
Shabby and seemingly unemployed in an apartment crammed with books, Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a difficult guy to get along with. Loud, opinionated, and always happy to butt into strangers’ personal space for an unwanted chat, it’s not surprising that this aging crank’s closest friend is his dog. But when his best (well, only) human friend moves away and his estranged father dies, Wilson decides to reach out to humanity. His childhood friends are creepy and violent; trying to pick up women by crashing into their cars isn’t exactly a sure-fire scheme. Then a typically self-involved rant on a bad date leads to the discovery that, thanks to the internet (which Wilson despises, obviously) he can track down his ex-partner Pippa (Laura Dern). She’s a nexus of regret for Wilson, a symbol of a life – a wife, a home, children – that seems lost to him forever. But what if it’s not? What if Pippa didn’t have an abortion and his now teenaged daughter (Isabella Amara) is alive and living with an adopted family? What if this is Wilson’s one last chance for happiness and he’s got to grab it with both hands?
This is clearly a terrible idea, and what little drama this slight film has comes from waiting for the moment when Wilson’s crazy dream of recreating his lost past will finally crash down around him. In the world of movie misanthropes, Wilson is an odd duck; clearly unpleasant to be around, his social awkwardness isn’t played just for laughs or for pity and there’s no clear progression from one stage to the other. Rather, Wilson is an amusingly self-important jerk we’re asked to sympathise with pretty much right from the beginning, as he slowly figures out that his blow-hard, self-important pontificating about the world isn’t quite the same as actually living in it. It’s a brave way to structure a film – despite everything he goes through, Wilson doesn’t change and barely grows – and the sentimental side gradually undercuts the laughs until all that’s left is a vague warm feeling towards a character we’d flee from in real life.
In recent years Harrelson has made a habit of making unpleasant characters charming, and he gives Wilson enough charm to sell his rambling speeches as funny (to us) rather than annoying, and enough pathos so that his sorrows are soulful instead of saccharine. It’s surprising that Clowes (who adapted his own graphic novel, expanding it into a story that takes place over years instead of the graphic novel’s single day) and director Craig Johnson chose to soften the book’s harsher edge, as it’s clear that Harrelson – obviously enjoying himself here – could have easily handled a darker character arc. Despite the hardships Wilson faces, it’s hard not to feel like Clowes and Johnson took so much of a shine to their character they decided to give the poor guy a break. A meaner version of this would have been funnier; a more sentimental version is hard to imagine.
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