Wilson ** / *****
Directed by: Craig Johnson.
Written by: Daniel Clowes based on his graphic novel.
Starring: Woody Harrelson (Wilson), Laura Dern (Pippi), Isabella Amara (Claire), Judy Greer (Shelly), Cheryl Hines (Polly), Margo Martindale (Alta), David Warshofsky (Olsen), Brett Gelman (Robert), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Jodie).
Daniel Clowes’ Wilson is one of the best graphic novels ever written – perhaps his best work, although he has written so many great works, that it’s hard to say for sure. Reading the book – which is basically a collection of incidents involving the title character, which eventually forms a sort of narrative, is an uncomfortable experience mainly because the lead character is so strange – he is a misanthrope, because he really does long for some sort of connection to someone – anyone – so much so that he’ll simply talk to strangers on buses or at coffee shops – sitting right next to them and just start talking about the evils of the modern world, and the lack of human connection, oblivious to the fact that these people don’t want to talk to him. A part of Wilson is right, of course, and does reflect much of Clowes worldview – and yet Clowes is more self-aware than his character, and realizes that a guy like this in real life would be really, really annoying to be around – which, of course, is why he’s alone in the first place.
Adapting this book into a movie was always going to be hard, as any filmmaker would rather a less episodic narrative than the novel. What’s odd about the movie though is that it has softened the lead character so much that even if he goes through the same things his book counterpart did, it really does change your perspective on everything about the story. As played by Woody Harrelson, Wilson is more of a lovable crank than an awkward misanthrope. Harrelson is, of course, a great actor and his interpretation of Wilson isn’t wrong per se – but it certainly isn’t what I had envisioned when I read the book. Worse than that though – because of course, a movie can be a complete and total departure from the source material and still work as a movie – is that by turning him into that lovable crank, Wilson the movie becomes a rather typical, quirky Sundance dramedy about a dysfunctional family. It’s not really a bad one, but it isn’t really a good one either – and it tries too hard to put a happy twist on everything. Essentially, it has taken an unforgettable book and made a completely forgettable movie out of it.
The story revolves around Wilson, who is a late middle aged, single man with no job, and a wife you walked out on him 17 years ago, had an abortion, and became a prostitute. His one real friend is moving away, his dad has just died, and when he tries to reconnect with an old friend, he remembers why he disconnected in the first place. An awkward date with Alta (Margo Martindale) inspires him to look up his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern) – who isn’t the drug addicted prostitute he thought she’d be. She reveals to him that he didn’t really have an abortion – but gave their daughter, Claire, up for adoption. The pair track her down and find that she (Isabella Amara) is a moody, Goth teenager, miserable enough in her affluent life to allow her birth parents back into her life. She even lets them take her on a trip to visit Pippi’s sister Polly (Cheryl Hines) – a perky woman in the suburbs – with horrible results.
Harrelson is entertaining in the lead role to be sure – he uses all of his charm to make Wilson a more sympathetic character, and one you may actually want to relate to (as opposed to the book version, where if you’re like me, and did relate to him anyway, you’re horrified by what that implies). He is surrounded by a wonderful, almost all female cast who has a good repore with. Dern in particular is quite good as the exasperated Pippi.
The film is directed by Craig Johnson, who did a better job in his last film, The Skeleton Twins (starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader) of walking that fine line between comic and dramatic (still not a great job – I liked that film less than many, but more than this). Here, he has essentially made an indie movie quirk fest, that ends with a smile and life lessons learned, which didn’t particularly strike me as the way to go. Wilson isn’t a bad film – had it not been based on a great book, I may have liked it a little more – but still, no matter what, this is a fairly forgettable film, with a few nice moments that doesn’t really add up to much. The book is masterpiece – do yourself a favor, and spend 90 minutes reading that instead – you may just have time to read it a second time as well.