The problem with Wilson, the second of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novels to be turned into a motion picture – his Ghost World was filmed by Terry Zwigoff in 2001- is that its curmudgeonly hero, known only by one name and played by Woody Harrelson, is essentially unrooted in recognisable reality. Wilson lives alone with his dog and has rejected the idea that life can deliver upon the promise of youth. Instead, he mocks strangers who pet his dog instead of talking to him and seats himself next to people just to start a conversation. Wilson was married once but his wife, Pippi, left him and had an abortion. Wilson only has one friend, but he is moving away to St Louis. Wilson bonds with a disgruntled shopper at a pet store and bumps her car to get a date. She rejects him, but then he gets another date, Alta (Margo Martindale) whom he prejudges on the basis of her looks. He would rather be with a beautiful person who is screwed up rather than an adjusted person who has made her peace with life.
There is no shortage of incident in Wilson as he sits by his father’s death bed and watches him pass, tries to connect with an old school buddy, Olson (David Warshofsky) who is more screwed up than he is and drives in the middle lane in an old station wagon, annoying fellow motorists. Wilson doesn’t like the internet – though he doesn’t read books or watch TV either. However, Alta shows him the benefits of the triple-w, finding his ex-wife’s sister and starting him down the path of locating his ex-wife (Laura Dern) whom he imagines is still turning tricks on the street.
When he meets Pippi, who has changed her name to Lynn and is working in a restaurant, he makes a life-changing discovery, one which I am not tempted to spoil.
Wilson’s desire to connect drives the film along – it packs a lot into 94 minutes – and it gets him into trouble. However, it plays like a false concept. Why can’t Wilson be properly counter-cultural? How does he pay for food and utilities? If he doesn’t need to work but loves both company and community, why does he not volunteer in a soup kitchen? Wilson’s narration book-ends the film but he is unreliable. Although he doesn’t admit it, he enjoys being a provocateur and is addicted to upsetting the people around him. Even when he tries to be convivial, it sounds like an insult.
Appearing in almost every scene, Harrelson tackles each set piece as if gnawing vigorously at a chew toy – and he gets through quite a few, metaphorically speaking. It is a committed performance – critic code for saying he doesn’t ever make Wilson seem lovable – but he doesn’t have much competition. At one point, we see Pippi-Lynn fight with her WASP-ish sister (Cheryl Hines) – punches are thrown, crockery broken – and we ask ourselves ‘is this entertainment?’
Director Craig Johnson has greater tonal control over this material than he showed in his previous film, The Skeleton Twins, but at best the film is only good for a few mild chuckles. Wilson is given a second chance – he loved his dog unconditionally, after all – and the film goes into interesting darker territory in the fourth act. The weird message of the movie is that for non-violent folks with boundary issues, prison can work wonders. This is not feel-good stuff.
Wilson is out 9th June