A lonely, neurotic and hilariously honest middle-aged man reunites with his estranged wife and meets his teenage daughter for the first time.
Based on the celebrated graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Wilson stars Woody Harrelson in the title role and the end result is a bit mixed in quality. The first thing to understand about Wilson the character is that he’s generally unlikeable. He’s a middle age man that in many aspects is anachronistic and through every situation, he wanders into it’s clear he wonders what his legacy in the world is.
To understand the movie, you need to really understand the graphic novel it’s based off of. Wilson isn’t as much a narrative story as it is a series of short situations that have more in common with newspaper strips than a graphic story. There’s a big picture theme through it all and some work together to form a story, but this isn’t your traditional story. With those short strips (usually a page) the art style too changes mixing up the visuals as a caustic and grumpy tone remains constant.
So Harrelson in the title role has it tough. Even in the comic Wilson doesn’t have much of a personality beyond “dick.” He’s grumpy and gruff and seems to lack a filter saying what he’s thinking as if he’s just given up on societal niceties. So Harrelson is walking into a role where the character is unlikeable and he pulls that off. This is Wilson the comic character brought to life and doing anything beyond “straight guy” honest delivery of the material would betray the character. Adding a sparkle, a smile, a wink, diminishes the character who is none of those things.
Joining Harrelson is primarily Laura Dern as his ex-wife Pippi who’s recovered from what is told to us was a hellish period of her life with stories that aren’t recounted so much as hinted at by things like tattoos. That allows us the viewer to imagine the situations, which honestly is probably funnier than anything Clowes could come up with. Dern does exhausted and weary well and you can see her evolve in her demeanor and appearance as she grows up compared to Wilson’s devolution.
Also joining them is Isabella Amara who plays Claire, the daughter neither know who is the impetus by which the main story gets going. She’s pretty solid but is primarily the audience to Pippi and Wilson’s crazy. She’s not much more than a prop at times for Wilson’s mania or to act as a stand-in for the audience.
Cheryl Hines, Judy Greer, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Brett Gelman, all stand out during their scenes delivering entertaining performances and controlling the tone or setting it in some ways. Which is impressive since Harrelson is such a presence (for good and bad) in the film.
Directed by Craig Johnson with a screenplay by Clowes, Wilson is interesting in that it attempts to create a narrative but it comes off as a series of vignettes. That really stands out to me as the graphic novel was a series of vignettes. They attempted to create a story out of something that really wasn’t. Some of the funniest moments from the graphic novel is included by what Johnson misses is that interesting visual from the comics. Each story has a different visual and we saw in the comic adaptation American Splendor what and how mixing visuals can work. The film visually would have been stronger if it took some inspiration from that film mixing in different styles including animation with the live action.
The film itself isn’t bad in any way, but it also falls short from what I had hoped (expectations probably didn’t help). The movie feels like a mid-life crisis High Fidelity. Instead of figuring out the direction of one’s life, it’s more focused on what one’s legacy will be. The laughs are there but with such a dark tone it’s an uncomfortable one and with an audience, you could feel that exude from them. Calling this a “dark comedy” is an understatement.
There’s some narrative choices when it comes to the story, especially at the end. Some time frames shift and I left wondering why. If there’s a difference to it all and if so, what it was. Clowes feels like he’s saying something a little different with those choices, but I’m not sure if it’s meant to be different. Some of the message and themes shift a little due to this change.
There’s also issues with the women generally portrayed as all negative, but by the end it’s clear that Wilson corrupts everything he touches and the negativity is a natural and justified reaction.
Wilson is one of the most under the radar comic adaptations of 2017 and it’ll be one that should be debated as to the end result and if it’s better or worse than the original graphic novel. Like American Splendor, Wilson shows not all “comic movies” involve spandex, and some of the most thought-provoking don’t involve them at all.
Overall Rating: 7.65