Wilson Review

A cranky Woody Harrelson is perfectly cast in Wilson, a film that’s more optimistic than Daniel Clowes’ other work.

Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), who adapted it for the screen himself with his first screenplay, Wilson is a fine showcase for the talented Woody Harrelson to create another character who, at least at first, is mostly likable for being so unlikable.

Directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), we meet Wilson on a normal day as he gets out of bed and walks his schnauzer Pepper, complaining about the problems with the world and everyone in it.  We all know the guy, and heck, some of us might even be him on one of our off-days. It’s not that Wilson is some kind of misanthrope, because he does like people; he just doesn’t seem to have a filter when interacting with them.

Eighteen years earlier, Wilson’s wife Pippy (Laura Dern) left him, which accounts for some of his crankiness. Yet when his father dies in the present, Wilson needs to find something to keep himself busy, so he decides to try to reconnect with his ex. After a kind of reunion with Pippy, Wilson becomes much more positive, almost giddy, particularly when he learns that the baby she gave up for adoption after leaving him is now a full-grown teenage daughter named Claire.

Anyone who has read any of Clowes’ comic book work knows that he’s an acquired taste, but as we saw with Ghost World, even as weird as his concepts or characters tend to get, there’s still something relatable about all of them. That’s especially the case with Wilson and his character arc throughout this movie. We watch someone who seems hopeless slowly find something which gives him hope.

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There’s little question that few actors could pull off what Harrelson does with this character, and he seems like the perfect vessel through which Clowes can pour his quirky form of rage, similar to how Steve Buscemi worked so well in Ghost World.  Just as important is how Johnson surrounds Harrelson with actresses who can keep pace with him, whether it’s Dern or Judy Greer (playing a friend who watches Wilson’s dog for him), but especially newcomer Isabella Amara as Wilson’s daughter Claire.

It’s immediately obvious that she is cut from the same cloth as her old man, and the young actress brings something out in Harrelson in the same way that Hailee Steinfeld did in last year’s The Edge of Seventeen. It’s a slight bummer that the always-wonderful Margo Martindale shows up basically for one bit in which she goes out on a date with Wilson, but then is never seen again.

Clowes’ script is solid, and it probably shouldn’t be that big a surprise because he long ago learned how to tell a compelling story about dysfunctional and offbeat characters that “normal people” can relate to, and Wilson continues that tradition. The humor is edgier and snarkier than other comedies, but never quite to the point of being off-putting.

As much as the movie tries to be a joyful experience about reuniting with family, the film still gets pretty dark before the end, especially when Wilson decides to take Pippy and Claire to visit her sister (Cheryl Hynes), and needless to say, Claire’s adoptive family is not thrilled about someone taking their daughter across state lines. The film’s third act is probably its most difficult, because you’ve grown to like Wilson by then, and it seems unfair what he’s put through.

That all said, Wilson is not going to be for everyone, and even those who usually like quirky and snarky indie fare might find that Clowes’ humor has been softened a bit in trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience. It’s not immediately apparent whether that attempt has worked.

One certainly has to give some credit to Johnson for finding a way into Clowes’ occasionally difficult material, and Wilson is a welcome addition to the Daniel Clowes “cineverse,” maybe not quite on par with Ghost World, but definitely better than Art School Confidential.

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Wilson will open in select cities on March 24 following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.


3.5 out of 5