‘Wilson’ Review: Who Wants to Watch Woody Harrelson Be a Curmudgeonly Asshole for 90 Minutes?
Woody Harrelson continues his streak of being that guy you always like to see pop up in things with Wilson, from The Skeleton Twins director Craig Johnson. Like The Skeleton Twins, Wilson is a blend of comedy and drama focusing on misfits trying their damnedest to navigate an unfriendly world and get their shit together. Unlike The Skeleton Twins, Wilson has Laura Dern with a “Property of Sir Daddy Big Dick” tramp stamp.
Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) adapts his own graphic novel, about a misanthrope (Harrelson) who decides to track down his estranged wife, Pippi (Dern). Years earlier, Pippi had an abortion and skipped town—only it turns out she lied about the first thing, and before you know it, she and Wilson are low-key stalking the teenage girl (Isabella Amara) whom Pippi gave up for adoption.
And… that’s about it, in terms of story, barring a turn of events that lands Wilson in jail for a time. As the title would indicate, this movie is more than anything else an examination of its central character. For all that Wilson seemingly feels nothing but disdain for everything and everyone around him, he’s also a deeply lonely man who yearns for human connection, up to the point of regularly plopping himself down next to complete strangers and initiating one-sided conversations with them—on public transportation, at the park, at a cafe, in the bathroom. Those conversations quickly devolve into awkwardness for a variety of Wilson-related reasons: He just. keeps. talking. despite the other person’s obvious lack of interest, he insults their job or comes off as a complete creeper, etc. etc. It’s frequently uncomfortable to watch, because you’ve met this guy, and you probably thought he was a complete dick.
And… well… he was. It’s to Harrelson’s credit that he’s able to make Wilson even vaguely sympathetic, because for all the guy means well, he’s a pretentious, obnoxious tool, and racist besides. (One of the people he attempts to strike up a conversation with is a Latina woman, to whom he at first speaks verrrry, verrrrry slowly, assuming she doesn’t speak English.) If any other actor were whinging on like Wilson does—about how computers hamper people’s ability to connect and corporate jobs aren’t, like, real, man, yawn, kill me—my eyes would roll back into my head. As it is, Wilson’s only sort of intolerable, which is the point. He’s a jackass, but Woody Harrelson is charismatic as fuck. And hey, Margo Martindale shows up for ten minutes! It’s always nice to see her.
All the same, Wilson works better in ten-minute segments than it does as a complete movie. Individual elements work. Harrelson’s fun to watch, as always. Judy Greer’s there, and she actually gets some god-damned screentime. (Remember 2015?) Dern brings depth to what could have been a one-note role. Wilson’s the main character here, but it’s Pippi, a woman who’s desperately trying to put her life together after years of substance abuse, whom I wanted to see more of. She’s the more compelling character, because for all she and Wilson are both fucked up, she’s the one with momentum. She has an actual emotional arc, where Wilson ends the movie more or less the same as he started it. Some of the rough edges have been worn off, sure, and his life is in a better place than it used to be, but he himself hasn’t done much growth. You get the sense that Pippi has the richer emotional life of the two of them. For example, when they meet their daughter, Pippi’s reaction is complex: she (rightly) points out that they have no business barging into this girl’s life, but at the same time she worries that her biological daughter will think she’s some white trash junkie. By comparison, Wilson’s unconcernedly happy to have (what he thinks is) a ready-made family and is blithely unaware that striking up a relationship with this girl without her parents’ knowledge might raise some red flags. There’s a bit of a eau de manbaby about the whole thing. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
As it is, Wilson’s a minor success—funny and cringe-inducing, with more of the former (slightly). The performances are all good. But it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to stick with you long-term.