“Modern civilization is a scam,” declares the supercilious, middle-aged divorcee loner, Wilson (Woody Harrelson) during the opening voice-over. “Happiness is hard to come by,” he adds. Well, in his world, when you’re a curmudgeon with a condescending attitude to everything and everyone around you, then, sure, happiness is the last thing you’ll come across.
Director Craig Johnson’s new comedy/drama titled simply Wilson is an adaptation from a graphic novel of the same name from writer Daniel Clowes, the cartoonist and scriptwriter whose earlier Ghost World became a 2001 movie. The same, sardonic style of humor is there. In Ghost World, teenage girls Enid and Rebecca viewed their world through a cynical prism. Wilson – we never know if that’s his first or last name; he’s simply Wilson – views things pretty much through the same prism, though there’s a difference. While the two amusingly critical girls were teenagers who would eventually go through something of a maturing curve and settle (at least, Rebecca did) Wilson is a grown man. That curve veered off a long time.
As shown in the first ten minutes or so, Wilson alienates everyone he meets, and it’s the one thing that seems to amuse him. He laughs at a curbside panhandler, who calls out obscenities as Wilson passes by. He insists on talking to strangers, who are minding their own business, and usually ends the one-sided conversation by lobbing insults. At a cafe bar, even though all the other tables are empty, he insists on sitting at the table where a stranger is working on his laptop. “Aren’t you a little old to be doing all that computer stuff?” he asks. Plus, he enjoys driving slowly over the white lines of a busy highway so that vehicles attempting to pass have to either swerve wildly either side or reluctantly follow at the same, snail pace.
But when Wilson gets the news that his father has died, he cries. Oddly, because of what you’ve already seen of Wilson, his attitude, his behavior and his responses, you’re not quite sure if the crying is still part of his act. Considering he goes through the day as if everything he says and does is one life-long personal performance art of comical dissatisfaction with the modern world, created for the amusement of an audience of one (think Andy Kaufman), perhaps even the crying is a performance. Only it turns out it’s not. He’s genuinely upset, and it’s an event that makes him reflect more seriously on where he is in his life, which is basically alone in a shabby room, living with his dog.
Wilson tries to reconnect with his past by reuniting with his ex, one-time drug addict now waitress in a steak house, Pippi (Laura Dern), whose reaction to meeting the man she abandoned seventeen years ago is something less than enthusiastic. But out of their meeting comes a discovery. The child Wilson thought was aborted after the divorce was actually placed for adoption. He has a daughter, and she lives with a couple in town. Before the blink of an eye, Wilson has found her, and she turns out to be overweight and just as cynical as dad.
There’s a lot in Wilson that you saw in Ghost World, at least in style and dead-pan humor, though Woody Harrelson delivers insults so amusingly, there’s something strangely endearing about his misanthrope that makes you laugh louder. It’s actually fun to see how his insults are his principle source of entertainment. Occasionally, you may even find yourself agreeing with some of his observations, even if you would never publicly admit it. It also has a good cast.
In addition to Dern, there’s the always enjoyable Judy Greer as Wilson’s dog-watcher with whom he later strikes up a surprising relationship; Cheryl Hines as the stepmother to Wilson’s daughter; and the daughter herself, Isabella Amara. “I always wondered how I got to be like this,” she states after meeting her biological father for the first time.
But ultimately, the overall feel to the film is of something saying or doing nothing particularly special, other than it being a respectable time-passer with some early laughs. It’s light fare. It quickly dissolves from memory once it’s done. In fact, even though author Daniel Clowes adapted his own work, it’s the graphic novel and it’s style that turns out to be the better medium in which to meet the man. Wilson is fun to know, but in the end, he comes across as far more effective a character on the printed page in strip form with pictures than at the movies.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 94 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)