Isolated after his dad’s death, petulant loser Wilson (Woody Harrelson) decides to reconnect with his ex (Laura Dern). When he discovers he has a teenage daughter born after their split, Wilson attempts to reunite the family... with calamitous results.
From Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets to Walter Matthau in, well, just about anything, American cinema has a rich history of cantankerous but loveable grouches. Adding another portrait to the grump gallery, Woody Harrelson delivers a spectacularly boorish performance in Wilson, an adaptation of Daniel Clowe’s alt-comic that depicts the mid-life crisis of a snarling underdog. The film has plenty of bark but a curiously soft, gummy bite.
The film has plenty of bark but a curiously soft, gummy bite.
Wearing his failed marriage like a rucksack of resentment, Harrelson plays a man whose Golden Years are browning into rust. His best friend’s a dog, he squats in a shabby apartment seemingly built out of old paperbacks and is such a pompous Luddite he probably thinks a cell phone is a prison intercom system. Loudly declaring himself a “people person”, Wilson is anything but. In fact, he’s pure social anthrax — a personal-space invader pestering strangers on buses, trains and public toilets in a series of cringe-inducing, modern-life-is-rubbish outbursts.
Splutteringly funny though they are, Wilson’s tactless, tone-deaf interactions mask a desperation to escape his alienated life — as the plot eventually fades in, he gets his chance. When Wilson’s dad dies and his only human friend leaves town, he reunites with his ex-wife and former junkie, Pippi (a fantastically bedraggled Laura Dern). The revelation that his supposedly aborted offspring is alive, well and adopted reawakens Wilson’s family-man urges and, after some unsubtle stalking, he reconnects with his teenage daughter. Isabella Amara’s surly Wilson Jr isn’t just a chip off the old block — she appears to have been beamed in straight out of Clowe’s Ghost World.
Motored on appalled laugher, Wilson’s early stretches are great, grating fun but as the plot lunges into farce, including a misjudged stretch in jail, things gets scrappy. The two previous Clowe adaptations, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, were both marshalled by Terry Zwigoff, whose merciless deadpan style echoed Clowe’s distinctive brand of misanthropy. Craig Johnson’s directing here, and doesn’t entirely click with Clowe’s jaded worldview.
Johnson’s last film, The Skeleton Twins, bleached its black suicidal sibling drama with luminous laughs and brittle realism. The larky tone he goes for with Wilson is considerably broader — the cast are game but the characters feel 2D, so when the final act reaches out for pathos and sentiment, it falls slightly flat. Perhaps oddest of all, for a film that prides itself in its edgy, anti-social anarchy, it’s crushingly obedient to formula, conforming to the tried-and-tested grump arc to redemption. Following a string of dramatic roles, it’s a blast seeing Harrelson, a gifted comic, reconnect with his funny bone, F-bombing memorable rants with a mischievous twinkle. Given its episodic structure and larger-than-life character, perhaps Wilson would’ve been more successful as a nihilistic sitcom. As a movie, even at a brisk 90 minutes, it feels sketchy and overstretched.
Gifted a bulldozing comic creation, Woody Harrelson’s stomping Grumpzilla performance powers this fitfully funny git-com that, after a bracingly acidic opening, dilutes into sugary feelgood.