“Wilson” is pitched somewhere between “Bad Santa” and Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy,” inhabiting a familiar strain of American movies about profoundly unlikable people. It’s based on the 2010 graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes, who excels at examining the lives of somber characters trapped in drab, isolating worlds. But even as the screenplay (which Clowes adapted) contains much of the source material’s pitch-black humor, it also falls short of realizing its subtle vision of an angry recluse learning to make peace with his surroundings.
A crazy-eyed Woody Harrelson portrays Wilson, a loudmouthed, middle-aged creep, and his performance captures the character’s fundamental appeal. Tackling this material was a tricky proposition, but the movie pulls off some endearing qualities thanks to director Craig Johnson, who last achieved a balance of gloomy comedy and a dark backdrop with “Skeleton Twins.” With “Wilson,” he appropriates the graphic novel’s ironic tone with a cheery soundtrack and brightly lit scenes at odds with the irascible sad sack at the center of the story. At its best, he apes the bleak mentality of Todd Solondz, whose movies often involve scenes that can shift from twisted humor to depressing observations with ease.
As the story begins, Wilson settled into a crummy routine, with only his dog Pepper to keep him company. His semi-stable life grows uneasy when his dad dies and his only friend moves away, and his hilarious attempt to rekindle a friendship with another childhood acquaintance goes nowhere. That leads him to track down his estranged ex Pippi (an wonderfully anxious Laura Dern), whom he last saw when she was a drug-addled mess. Now waiting tables across town, she’s not entirely thrilled to see Wilson but entertains him long enough to reveal that she had his child 17 years ago and gave her up to adoption.
Endowed with a new sense of purpose, Wilson drags Pippi along to track down their mysterious offspring, who turns out to be a chubby goth named Claire (Isabella Amara) leading an angst-filled existence in a wealthy household. When she’s drawn to the bizarre quasi-couple when they confront her at a mall, the trio embark on an oddly appealing relationship that’s doomed to fail, and climaxes with a series of spiraling events that further challenge Wilson’s capacity to do anything but insult the world around him.
Much of these events unfold merely as a vessel for the smarmy character to unleash his outsized personality on everyone and everything he encounters. It’s naturally hilarious to watch Harrelson assault random characters in various public places in ill-conceived efforts to be friendly, then turn vulgar when they reject his advances. Epitomizing the stereotype of the angry, disenfranchised America, Wilson has nothing but contempt for domesticity. He calls suburbia “a living death,” and when he refers to Pippi’s judgemental sister (Cheryl Hines) as “a living death,” she’s quick to remind him that he used to say that about everyone. His retort: “Was I wrong?”
Alternating between leering and scowling in every frame, the actor clearly had a blast with this obnoxious caricature, and Dern’s just as compelling as exactly the kind of frantic loner who might find him attractive. Still, he’s fun to watch but ultimately limited by the material; he can’t seem to push Wilson beyond the rudimentary aspects of the plot. The result is an irritatingly inconsistent creation, whose transition from mean-spirited misfit to hesitant idealist doesn’t quite pass muster.
If nothing else, “Wilson” provides yet another opportunity — following “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential” — to provide a bigger platform for Clowes’ distinctive voice. His work excels at capturing hermetic lives at odds with traditional social mores, and what happens when they try to change their circumstances. Johnson makes a decent effort at channeling Clowes’ talent, but Clowes had the advantage of capturing the vignette-like nature of his antihero’s meandering life in the form of classic Sunday funnies. It’s an approach that’s tough to imagine in cinematic form, and understandable why the feature-length adaptation abandons it. “Wilson” is evidence that the cartoonist’s style is both unique to the graphic novel medium — and why it belongs there.
“Wilson” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Fox Searchlight will release on March 24, 2017.