Directed by Craig Johnson
Screenplay by Daniel Clowes
Starring Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, and Isabella Amara
In Theaters 3/24/17
Wilson, and its titular character, is like that friend who play hits you way too hard while giving you the single most infectious smile you can recall; blissfully unaware of its own faults and heart-wrenchingly earnest all the same.
Based on the Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name, Wilson, directed by Craig Johnson, stars Woody Harrelson in the lead role as a misanthropic yet entirely lovable man who wants what everyone seems to want: affection and acceptance. He desperately tries to seek this by creating a Frankenstein monster of a pseudo-nuclear family composed of his ex-wife, played by Laura Dern, and their long lost daughter whom was given up to adoption. While the film adaptation may suffer from problems in pacing and storytelling, it is this love that is conveyed in the key moments of Harrelson’s performance that skirts incredibly close to being, well, incredible.
There’s a key choice in depiction of the title character that the film makes in spite of the source material that is fundamental for accepting and appreciating the film for its earnest self. In the graphic novel, we, as the reader, feel sympathy for Wilson even though he does not pity himself or his situation. In the film, we, as the viewer, love Wilson as he acts as a surrogate towards teaching us to love the world. For example, there’s a scene of Wilson skyping a family member in the source material that is mirrored in the film. In the comic, the person Wilson is skyping couldn’t be less interested, but Wilson doesn’t care, he loves that person. In the film, however, that scene is played for all of the love it can and should have; saccharine sweet in the best way possible.
Don’t get me wrong; Harrelson as a crass, vulgar, portrays Wilson and occasionally downright awful man who has no sense of boundaries but this same lack of boundary that creates the flood of negativity from Wilson’s mouth also allows for the font of warmth and humanity to exit at the same intensity and volume. Whether or not one views this as genuine or ham-fisted is their choice to make.
The film falters in its attempts to capture the fragmented nature of the source material. The plot thread present is so thin and, while this isn’t a problem in itself, the extended vignettes that play beat for beat in the same fashion as the graphic novel feel like little more than padding; they’re funny, but the film would be better suited with a more streamline approach.
There’s an extended sequence in the film that involving Wilson’s jaunt in prison. He plays board games with skinheads and high fives rival gangs. It’s both endearingly simplistic and crassly naïve that one, if able to look over the slightly problematic nature of the situation, would be hard-pressed not to let out the smallest of smiles. In this sometimes rough, occasionally butterfingered film, the marriage of Johnson’s direction and Harrelson’s performance sing.
One would be remiss in not singing the praises of Laura Dern, especially in this film. She gives such a great performance as Wilson’s ex-wife and his foil; she can’t entirely mirror his caustic love but she certainly tries to learn to accept it in her own fashion. Her visit with Wilson in prison where she demonstrates a slight understanding of the implicit lesson of living with Wilson is immensely moving for the audience even if the scene itself is disappointing for our hero. Her acting moved me; Dern’s performance is a valiant one.
Johnson’s direction and Clowes’ script is such without judgment. I’d be hard pressed to label it as black comedy, as well. The situations are dark and most often sad, but it’s Wilson’s optimism in response to these tragic situations that transcends a blanket label of black comedy.These characters are who they are, trying to learn to love themselves and each other. By this lesson I can learn to see past the films fault and accept it as what it showed me: humor, heartbreak, and a bevy of human warmth.