Graphic novelist Daniel Clowes’ sardonic wit is an acquired taste. Director Terry Zwigoff was able to translate his voice fluently in GHOST WORLD and ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL. Now director Craig Johnson (THE SKELETON TWINS) takes a stab at the author’s cutting vision and is mostly successful. Mostly.
Some people might call Wilson (Woody Harrelson, who’s genuinely great at slinging zingers) an jerk. Others might call him a realist. Both groups would agree he’s an all-around unfiltered, pessimistic curmudgeon. He’s used to operating on a different wavelength than the rest of society. He encroaches on others’ personal spaces in cafes, restrooms and public transportation in order to force a connection. He mocks people who’d rather talk to his sweet doggo than him. And some of his attempts to engage might be seen as provocative, driving down the middle of the road, behaving irrationally, courting angry feelings in others. However, a lot of people don’t see it like this, as he’s only got one friend (Brett Gelman) – and that guy is moving away. That void grows exponentially once Wilson’s father dies, leading him to take stock of his life. Deciding that a return to past relationships is the best course of action, Wilson pushes himself on his troubled, temperamental ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern). He learns he’s the father of a now-adopted teen, Claire (Isabella Amara), who’s also not terribly happy with her current rich suburban life. Hijinks and hilarity ensue from there as Wilson grows way too comfortable with his newly formed family unit.
The first half is absurdly hilarious and pretty solid story-wise. Clowes, working from his graphic novel, has created quirky characters who don’t obnoxiously suffocate the picture. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a parade of assholes. People like Wilson’s irascible high school bestie Olsen (David Warshofsky) and Pippi’s perfect, chardonnay-sipping sister Polly (Cheryl Hines) stand in contrast to the titular protagonist, proving that Wilson’s more likeable than you may have first superficially judged. Harrelson does some tremendously funny physical comedy work here, getting tangled in a bunch of balloons. Pop culture references to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and WICKED also take a hearty ribbing as the brunt of two very funny, incredibly sharp jokes. Editor Paul Zucker’s comedic timing on the zingers here is outstanding, nailing tone. Jon Brion’s score is some of his best work. You can hear these characters within the sonic soundscape – controlled naive happy delight, but with an edge.
However, once Wilson gets thrown in the slammer, the narrative goes off the rails with character motivations that fluctuate wildly and ill-fitting scenarios. How is he able to float between the prison’s factions? Despite explaining her reasons, Claire shows no remorse having sent him to prison, so it’s a little hard to buy her turn-around. Her change of heart doesn’t make sense in terms of her character, but it does in terms of impact on Wilson’s, giving him a brief third act push-pull conflict. Pippi’s resolution is understandable, but rushed. Everything dealing with Wilson’s dog-sitter Shelly (Judy Greer) varies wildly in tonal fluency, though, thank God, she’s never underserved by the material.
Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for Clowes’ sentiment that we shouldn’t try to hold on to past relationships. It may come as an epiphany to some that even though society loves to exploit a good second-chance story, toxic people shouldn’t be together for the sake of their own good. But for everyone else, WILSON’S thematic elements may just land with a “ho-hum.”
3.5 out of 5
WILSON is now playing.