Intolerable people don’t need intolerable movies sticking up for them. Wilson, another adaptation of a cranky Daniel Clowes graphic novel, fails to attain the same merits as his characters in the other adaptations of his work, Ghost World or even Art School Confidential. In this case, director Craig Johnson’s film isn’t sharp enough to balance out how unpalatable it is.
Woody Harrelson plays Wilson, the kind of possibly autistic, anti-society hyper-libertarian who people always seem to think is quirky and charming until people actually have to deal with him. After a full day’s work of philosophizing Harrelson voiceover, Wilson loses his best friend (moving away) and his dad (cancer) too closely together to ignore. He needs a change.
Which means, for Wilson, that he’s going to bug the hell out of anyone who stays still long enough for him to leech onto. He’s a bar weirdo, the selfish guy who won’t take your answers at face value to prove he’s trying to understand you on a deeper level if you’ll just meet him there—while all you want is for him to go away.
Johnson simply isn’t adept enough at balancing the script’s tonal shifts and Harrelson’s character isn’t performed with the kind of childish happy-go-lucky vibe that a film with this premise, a premise that even Bill Murray struggled with in What About Bob?, needs. While that movie admits to its protagonist’s mental health issues as something that should be treated, either with fraternal understanding or professional care, Wilson makes the case that everyone else just doesn’t get it. They’re all corporate slaves, man, who’ve bought into the fake “rules” that society places on us, man.
It’s even worse when Laura Dern’s character actually talks like that. She turns up as Wilson’s ex-wife who fell on hard times and puts up with Wilson because he’s the only one who will put up with her. Dern’s is an offensively simplistic role, treating her like the only older actress they could afford who’d look halfway decent in a denim skirt. Wilson objectifies people—even when he’s protesting against objectifying people he’s objectifying them, because the movie never bothers caring enough about its characters to elaborate upon them beyond their uses to Wilson’s narrative.
Wilson finds Dern’s character (ludicrously named Pippi because, yes, this film premiered at Sundance) after Wilson has an illuminating conversation with always-elevating character actress Margo Martindale, in which she performs some all-too-real Google-stalking. Wilson decides that it’s time to dive back into his past rather than move forward, and proceeds to stalk his ex-wife. Martindale never resurfaces. If Johnson or Clowes were a little more cognizant of the film’s single-mindedness, they could reflect on the idea that Wilson’s point of view has made all Wilson’s characters shallow husks—but that never happens. The film simply moves forward.
Somehow Wilson’s stalking works out for him; he finds out the daughter he thought had been aborted upon his divorce was actually given up for adoption, and the renewed couple shift their stalking attentions to their daughter (Isabella Amara).
If this sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through with some characters that aren’t any fun to be around: The film never decides, scene by scene, whether it wants amiable chuckles or film-festival-thoughtfulness from its unlikable leads. Is it a dark comedy for those edgy dads out there fed up with technology? Or is it a heartwarming indie about how even oddballs stuck in “the good ol’ days” can find their place in the world?
A few interesting plot developments occur, but cinematographer Frederick Elmes offers nothing much to look at, and Jon Brion’s score is overpowering and smug, bouncing along as the antithesis of what a profane, bald, racist curmudgeon deserves. A profoundly stupid cynicism, most commonly found in college seniors who refuse to vote, emerges. Scenes crash into one another, jammed together without care or reason. It’s an exhausting experience.
Wilson spends the rest of the movie slowly developing relationships with his ex-wife, his daughter (subject to fat jokes and that’s about it) and (inexplicably) Judy Greer, who plays his dogsitter. It all amounts to a saccharine nothing that Wilson himself would scoff at if he weren’t a hypocritical, enlightened-atheist, internet commenter of a man who literally befriends some Nazis in the film because they might be alt-right, but he gets it, man: The Man sucks. This movie sucks more.
Director: Craig Johnson
Writer: Daniel Clowes
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Isabella Amara
Release Date: March 24, 2017