Film Review: Wilson

Woody Harrelson noshes on the scenery as an amiable sociopath taking a hit-and-miss stab at getting a life.
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Rude, self-absorbed, unwittingly insulting, oblivious to other people’s “space,” Wilson is the kind of guy you’d write off as a real jerk (or worse), if you overheard him bloviating on a bus or in a bar. But then, that’s how most of the people in this film feel about him, and most of them know him all too well. And yet, as unabashedly played by Woody Harrelson, this unbridled boor gradually grows on you. Maybe that’s because his usually inappropriate comments are often directed at people who deserve them—and never at us.

But grow on you he does, even when Wilson the movie drags him through some off-puttingly problematic situations. And maybe because those situations are less than fun to sit through, you even root for him to emerge intact, and a better man. Or something like that.

And in the end, that’s what Wilson is all about. It’s the story of a guy who gets a one-two punch wake-up call when first his father dies, and then his only friend moves away. That leaves Wilson with only his little terrier Pepper, and a sudden resolve to make more—and get more—out of his life.

The self-reclamation plan begins with getting back into the dating game. But when his first attempt is rear-ending a car in a strip-mall parking lot, just so he can ask the driver out—taking the “meet cute” concept to a whole new level—you begin to sense what an uphill climb this is going to be. As if to confirm that, things don’t go much better on his next attempt, when he tells his date (Margo Martindale) that he’s all about finding someone he can get serious about. “Not necessarily you,” he adds.

It’s about at this point that Wilson starts obsessing about Pippi (Laura Dern), the ex-wife who walked out on him, got an abortion, and never saw him again. That was 17 years ago. Where is she now? What would she be like? Wilson hires a private eye to find out.

In a Google-age blink, Wilson’s quest takes him to the lower middlebrow restaurant where Pippi waitresses—an apparent rehabilitation from her fast, loose, drug-fueled recent past. It’s an understandably awkward reunion—for about ten minutes of screen time. After which Wilson’s dubious charms have once more won over Pippi—to the point that she can’t remember why she even hated him. After that, what else can they do but fall into bed together? For screenwriters who require us to suspend our disbelief, sometimes it’s just that simple.

Not that the filmmakers have avoided making things difficult for all involved. Case in point: the next morning’s pillow talk, during which Pippi reveals that she never had that abortion after all—that she gave birth to a baby girl she gave up for adoption. Small wonder that the man seeking to reboot his life now resolves to find—and bond with—the daughter he never knew he had.

Thus, the film shifts gears, to the next phase of Wilson’s reformation, as he tries to connect with Claire (Isabella Amara), a surly, cynical, zaftig teenage Goth who is bullied at school and largely ignored in her McMansion home, by preoccupied parents we almost never meet. Winning Claire over from that cold mess is the challenge for a man with Wilson’s empathy issues. 

This is where the film begins to find its heart—even as it starts to lose a handle on its shifting tone. Because even though Wilson seems truly committed to making the father-daughter thing work, he’s still, well, Wilson. This is made wincingly clear, in a scene in which Wilson—whom we’ve already seen wake up a stranger in an almost empty train car by plopping down next to him to engage in conversation—pulls a similar stunt at the urinal of a public restroom. As a ballsy punch line, he compliments his neighbor’s junk. Need it be pointed out that this simply isn’t done?

The tonal inconsistencies only get more pronounced during the shakily makeshift Wilson-Pippi-Claire family unit’s road trip to visit Pippi’s priggish older sister, Polly (Cheryl Hines). This ends with an epic, kitchen-trashing Pippi-and-Polly slugfest, followed by Wilson’s arrest on charges of kidnapping. Yes, Claire neglected to tell her adoptive parents that she was going out of town with strangers.

The subsequent prison sequence further pushes the envelope of mixed moods, sometimes in a matter of seconds. For instance: One minute you’re smiling at Wilson’s left-handed compliment of a fellow inmate’s swastika face tattoo, then the next you’re recoiling from the smash-face beating he takes.

This is the way it goes with Wilson, which arrives at a hard-earned, somewhat bittersweet ending, after such a forcibly offbeat journey. How satisfying you find this is strictly a matter of taste.

Credit the inspired, fully committed cast for making Wilson so consistently watchable. Because director Craig Johnson sure had his hands full managing screenwriter Daniel Clowes’ adaptation of his own graphic novel. This is a film that is easier to critically appreciate than it is to fall in love with. But if Wilson’s crude creativity results in a mixed bag of comedic moments, it is most certainly never boring. In fact, more often than not, it’s decidedly bracing—for better or worse.

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