“That is pure Wilson!”
Wilson (Woody Harrelson) isn’t necessarily the ideal people person — though not for a lack of trying. A misanthropic, overzealous, oversharing middle-aged narcissist with a smug, condescending attitude towards society’s ever-evolving (or, according to Wilson, devolving) attachment to new-age technology, particularly those pesky youngsters who favor beaming blue-and-white screens over actual, genuine human interaction, Wilson is a stuck-up intellectual with multiple opinions but little to show for his life. He’s a not-so-simple man living a fairly simple life, one that finds him alone and frustrated away from the company of his loyal pooch. But Wilson is exactly the prickly, self-righteous protagonist that comes from the skewed mind of acclaimed graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, best known for 1997’s Ghost World and its excellent 2001 film adaptation, which he also co-wrote.
Wilson serves as Clowes’ third film adaptation, after 2006’s mostly-forgotten (if still fairly decent) Art School Confidential, and the first not to be directed by his loyal collaborator, Terry Zwigoff. Instead, Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) takes the reigns, and Zwigoff’s absence is sorely felt. Lacking the specific vision and the tonal deftness that Zwigoff, at his best, commands beautifully, Wilson is a broader, looser and, sadly, more uneven take on Clowes’ vivid and narrowed imagination. The heavy sarcasm, biting bickering and warped worldview found in both Clowes’ source material and Johnson’s stronger, more focused 2014 feature are seen throughout this newest film, which is also adapted by Clowes, but the result is a little more unyieldly and inappropriately wide-reaching. That said, while Wilson is undoubtedly the weakest cinematic translation of the author’s work to date, a little Clowes does go a long way, and Johnson’s talented ensemble are thankfully in their element.
In Clowes’ original book, Wilson, the character, serves as an almost aimless meanderer who favors yelling at strangers to forming an emotionally honest connection to others. As a result, Wilson, the film, takes a more humanist approach, following the titular character’s attempt to rekindle his broken relationship to his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), while also forming a bond with his long-lost 17-year-old daughter, the overweight, socially-rejected Claire (Isabella Amara, with a striking resemblance to Thora Birch). It’s an understandably sweeter, more well-meaning new direction, and one that’s admittedly filled with a healthy dose of messy heart and sincerity. Harrelson, to his continued credit, walks, looks and (for the most part) acts the balding, hunched-over, overbearingly personal part, playing up the disheveled aloofness of Wilson’s everyday personality with a touch more Woody Allen-ness than what’s seen in the panels. But since modern audiences can only deal with an unapologetic asshole for so long, especially in today’s social and political climate, Johnson and Clowes were ultimately wise to play up Wilson’s friendlier, more compassionate side.
If only Wilson could have a proper handle on its darkly comedic tone. Never truly comfortable with being regularly mean-spirited, yet smart enough not to drown the film in saccharine oversentimentality, Johnson can’t quite balance the sour with the sweet as swiftly as Zwigoff. As a result, Wilson is too thorny to acceptably appeal to a wide audience, yet not faithful enough to Clowes’ distinctive voice to wholeheartedly win over his fans. It’s a bit of a jumble, and that doesn’t make it an easier film to swallow. But when it works, it’s delightful in pure Clowes fashion. Harrelson and Dern find an agreeable chemistry together, while their budding on-screen relationship with Amara is legitimately endearing. Sure, it lacks the beloved exactness of Ghost World and, on occasion, Art School Confidential, but it does find its own perverse rhythm.
In their admirable effort to modernize Wilson to our changing, challenging times, Johnson’s latest film is an unexpectedly warm, commendably respectful new adaptation that, unfortunately, isn’t going to live outside of Ghost World‘s immortal shadow. But few films can live up to that cult classic, and Wilson is happy to keep itself reasonably modest and enjoyably persistent. Like Art School Confidential, Wilson is definitely a B/C-level Clowes film adaptation, but when Clowes’ demented reality was missed from the silver screen as much as it was, you’ll take what little satisfaction you can get in this miserable little world. That said, somewhere out there in the cosmos, there’s a reality where Zwigoff or Alexander Payne, who was once attached to direct this very film, helmed an adaptation with Paul Giamatti or Louis C.K. in the lead. Oh, how I wish I lived inside that strange galaxy.