Wilson is an American comedy-drama film directed by Craig Johnson and written by Daniel Clowes, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Clowes. The film stars Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, and Cheryl Hines.
In his graphic novels and infrequent movies, Daniel Clowes bitingly writes about people aged to imperfection. In last decade’s Ghost World and Art School Confidential it only took Clowes’ misfits until adolescence for hopeless cynicism to set in.
Wilson is Clowes’ notion of what a lifetime of that outlook does to someone. The title role — we never learn if Wilson’s his first or last name — is gamely portrayed by Woody Harrelson, not the first actor in mind to play a pathetic character, even one so unfiltered. Weakness simply isn’t Harrelson’s strength.
Adapting his graphic novel for the screen, Clowes lays out an initially interesting existence for Wilson, living alone and bitter with his dog. Wilson handles the growling at anyone being civil. Craig Johnson directs the movie as a series of comic strip arcs in motion, with four-panel timing and abrupt turns elsewhere.
A few early vignettes click. Wilson’s assistance to a woman at a pet store becomes a sharp dissection of dog owner neuroses then a desperate attempt to get her digits. Their awkwardness is observed by a lonelier woman (Margo Martindale, too briefly) who becomes collateral emotional damage: “I need to find someone new,” Wilson says. “Not you, of course.”
Random encounters like that keep Clowes’ choppy narrative working as a genuine plot materializes. Laura Dern is fine as Wilson’s estranged wife, Pippi, a reformed prostitute and addict revealing she gave up their infant daughter for adoption. Fatherhood years removed inspires Wilson to locate the girl and perhaps woo back Pippi.
Clowes uses the opportunity to revisit outcast teen themes of Ghost World through Claire (Isabella Amara), who’s bullied about her size and post-Goth fashion. Ignored by her wealthy adoptive parents, Claire joins her biological parents on an ill-advised road trip detouring to prison and too far beyond to hold interest.
Harrelson and Dern’s efforts aside, Wilson is indie ennui at its emptiest, a vessel of misshapen wit with a hole in the bottom. Its nihilism is exhausting. Oddness gets oppressive when a movie goes through more mood swings than its unbalanced heroes.