Wilson (Craig Johnson, 2017) 2 out of 4 stars
From Craig Johnson, director of the delightfully offbeat, tragicomic The Skeleton Twins, in 2014, comes Wilson, still offbeat and tragicomic, though far less delightfully so. Based on a series of comics by Daniel Clowes, whose pleasantly warped imagination was also the source for Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 eccentric dork-girl adventure Ghost World, the film, though never without some kind of interest (even if repellent), struggles to find a consistent approach to its material. Johnson refuses to embrace any one tone – which is his right – only rarely merging tragedy and comedy in successful union. And though kudos go to lead actors Woody Harrelson (The Edge of Seventeen) and Laura Dern (Certain Women) for fully embracing the weirdness of it all, their performances are not enough to make Wilson truly compelling as a narrative. It has moments of genuine poignancy and mirth, but is not greater than the sum of these fleeting parts.
Harrelson plays the titular character, a man who has spent his life mostly repulsing those around with him. He interacts with the universe by forcefully intruding on other people’s private space, ignoring all entreaties to go away. His one true friend is his dog, Pepper (a smallish terrier), whom he leaves in the care of a charming dog-sitter (Judy Greer, Grandma) when travel beckons, as it does, sadly, early on, when his last remaining relative kicks the bucket. This heartbreaking event – punctuated by scenes of awkward comedy – leads Wilson to reconsider his life’s choices. So he tracks down his ex-wife, Pippi (Dern) – they divorced years ago – and when he finds her, discovers that she’s long kept a precious secret from him. That revelation leads to new adventures and misadventures – at times humorous, at others not – before real disaster strikes Wilson, tearing his life apart. Does he change? Does he become a better person? Yes, and no. It’s more like the world changes to accommodate his inability to do so.
Like a cross between the Italian Neorealist fable Umberto D (which we actually see posted on a cinema marquee, at one point) and American Splendor (another screen adaptation of a misanthropic comic hero), Wilson borrows from both but seems to enjoy frustrating viewer expectations. That, however, is not where it falters. By all means, make something unusual and flout convention. Just do more than that. And please, avoid the maudlin touches at the end. Wilson, as unpleasant as he may be, deserves a better finale than he gets, where he is reduced to uttering banal platitudes. Still, ultimate misfire though it may be, at least it’s an artistically ambitious one, almost deserving of another half-star rating. Almost …