Wilson (2017) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout and some sexuality
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Isabella Amara, Cheryl Hines
Small role: Margo Martindale
Director: Craig Johnson
Screenplay: Daniel Clowes (based on his graphic novel)
Review published March 31, 2017
Adapted by Daniel Clowes (Art School Confidential, Ghost World) from his own graphic novel from 2010, Wilson progresses beyond the one-panel comic strips from its print counterpart for the purpose of a more straightforward black comedy story of a lonely middle-aged man who seeks a connection with those around him, but he's too acerbic and contemptuous in his nature to attract anyone for very long. Unfortunately, like most who attempt dark comedy, there's an unevenness in the tone delivered by director Craig Johnson, who made a name for himself with the heartfelt indie comedy darling The Skeleton Twins, that keeps solid laughs mostly at bay.
Moving the strip from its original Oakland, CA to, we presume, St. Paul, MN, we find the technology-hating loner Wilson (Harrelson, The Edge of Seventeen) losing the sole connections he has left when his father passes from cancer and his only friend ends up moving to St. Louis. Trying to find someone to talk to, Wilson is desperate enough to attempt to contact his estranged ex-wife Pippi (Dern, The Founder), who has had her own demons to contend with, such as drug addiction and an unwanted pregnancy. Wilson thought that Pippi had never brought the fetus to term, but Pippi informs him that she gave the infant up for adoption. Delighted that he's actually a father, at least technically, Wilson and Pippi set about trying to find their 17-year-old daughter (Amara, The Boss), and perhaps a second chance at a life that he thought had past him by.
One issue regarding Wilson is the one that might put the film on the map for some viewers to begin with, and that's the choice of the lead actor himself. Woody Harrelson has played heinous S.O.B.'s in films effectively before, but he's too laid back in his approach to fully buy into the fact that his character is wound up tight and has no filter on his many verbal eruptions. It's also hard to buy the film as some sort of character study when all of the cast of characters are complete caricatures, playing more for instant comedic effect than for the telling nods that would allow their stories some room to breathe.
Wilson recalls somewhat the works of Alexander Payne, who coincidentally had originally optioned the project before ultimately passing on it. Payne would have likely found not only the right comedic angle for the main character, who seems to fit in with his cantankerous aging protagonist line of films like About Schmidt and Nebraska, but also the bits of humanity underneath to root these characters in a manner in which we might laugh at their foibles while also cheering them on to potential happiness. We start off not liking Wilson as a character, who is judgmental of everyone else's issues, whether real or only in Wilson's head, while clearly having no clue about himself or how he is perceived by others. Even though there is an arc for him that suggests that his new experiences have changed him inside, there's not enough development in the way this plays out to connect with us as worthy of relating to with any depth of emotion. He's as uncomfortable in his happiness as he is in his misery.
Perhaps the best thing I can say for Wilson is that it features a very fine supporting cast of actresses - Dern, Greer (Ant-Man), Martindale (The Hollars) and Hines (Think Like a Man Too) - who do their best to make their shallow characterizations come to life. Even newcomer Isabella Amara holds her own among the seasoned veterans, giving her character the semblance of something more beyond what we see than that which the film ever seems content to explore. If there are moments to be had within Wilson, it's thanks to their abilities to coax something to connect with beyond just being a target for Wilson to bounce off for uneasy laughs.
Though the story is disorganized in its approach, there are attempts there to try to build up scenes. From the time spent while Wilson tries to secure a woman to date, and during a sequence of scenes that take place in a prison, there's potential there to see new facets into the character, but they mostly reiterate things we already know. As diversionary as these things are, they don't reveal a great deal, and don't offer up enough laughs to make them worthy to explore, feeling more like continued distractions rather than something that continues to drive narrative momentum.
One suspects that the scattershot nature of the premise probably works better on the printed page, where we can take in Wilson's antics in small doses, and return again when we want another bite. As a full-length tale, there's an expectation that we will delve much further into the character than something we might get from our immediate take in the first panel of comic strip we might find the character within. There are a handful of individual scenes that work fine, mostly because they approach closer to where the story could have gone to keep us interested in the main character and his progression through life. Alas, those moments are a bit too sparse to recommend Wilson as something worth over ninety minutes of our time to explore.
©2017 Vince Leo