Wilson: American Blowhard

(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Craig Johnson, Writ. Daniel Clowes
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Isabella Amara, Cheryl Hines

Laura Dern as Pippi and Woody Harrelson as Wilson in Wilson.
Photo by Wilson Webb / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Wilson is a man from another era. He isn’t one for cell phones and he has an utter disdain for the Internet. Real communication, to Wilson, is that old-school person-to-person stuff. That’s too bad because Wilson really isn’t much of a people person.

Don’t expect to get any warm and fuzzy feelings for this character. Wilson is an unabashed asshole. However, he lives in his own special universe—a nice solipsistic little place of good intentions and curmudgeonly ranting. He’s a decent person at heart, but he has no idea whatsoever on how to articulate his cheery vibes into something to which other people can relate.

Wilson, based on the graphic novel character by Daniel Clowes, wanders the gentrifying streets of Minneapolis-St. Paul and observes life through a distorted lens that’s a mix of rose-coloured hues and poopy browns. He, much like the character of the book, wonders at the point of it all in a society that’s become utterly disconnected. Humorous episodes see Wilson taking a seat beside a passenger on an empty bus or shimmying up to the lone guy relieving himself in a line of otherwise vacant urinals and forcing a conversation with his fellow man.

Wilson’s pointed view on life is dark and sarcastic, but while it’s often laced with unpalatable opinions and language far more colourful than the film’s neutral palette, his words often contain grains of bitter truth. His musings and rambling thoughts don’t always play as well on film as they do in the singular images of Clowes’s graphic novel: the concision of a speech bubble sometimes works better than a speech that plays out in full. His thoughts seem a little dated, too, but Wilson’s also a man of another era and he doesn’t quite understand his time or fully grasp it. He only knows that the world is a little bit fucked.

As played by Woody Harrelson, though, Wilson works precisely because the title character is such a blowhard. Cranky and ranty characters like Wilson are hard to play with any measure of success—go too crabby and audiences might be turned off, go too funny and audiences might become irritable—but Harrelson just the right balance. The sweetness of his scenes with co-star Judy Greer, who shines in a memorable role as Wilson’s dog nanny, reveals a kind soul underneath Wilson’s cantankerous exterior.

Wilson captures the spirit of the graphic novel largely thanks to Harrelson’s performance. His Wilson is both an affable everyman—a crass, hot-tempered George Bailey-George Costanza hybrid—and an out to lunch pseudo-intellectual doofus on his own desert island of distorted reality. Harrelson is very funny and oddly endearing even if Wilson deserves every punch to the face he gets.

The odyssey of navel-gazing, self-discovery, and sardonic sermonising inevitably makes Wilson a bit of a rocky road as it bumps along numerous tonal shifts. Even if Wilson is inconsistent in its style of humour, it’s a reliably funny film since Harrelson has the right grasp for the character’s ability to inhabit both situational humour and comic observations.

Wilson follows the graphic novel rather faithfully—one could read Clowes’s graphic novel as a storyboard just as much as source material—as the writer adapts his own work and fills in the action that plays out in between the frames of the cartoon. The film therefore feels like a fuller version of the same story, as Clowes and director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) devise a straightforward narrative in place of the loose episodic style of the graphic novel. This Wilson is driven by its plot more than the printed predecessor is as Harrelson’s shaggy boob finds himself on a road trip of recovery/self-discovery when the sudden death of his father prompts him to repair some relationships with the past.

Cue Wilson’s ex-wife Pippi, whom Laura Dern plays uproariously well in one of the film’s improvements from the graphic novel. Pippi is on the mend from her own seedy past as a junkie/sex worker and Wilson never lets her tell her own story. As they reconnect and find the daughter that Pippi gave up for adoption when Wilson went MIA from their relationship, Wilson embellishes Pippi’s past as a lady of the night with half-truths, unchecked facts, and outright falsehoods. Watching Dern’s aggrieved face every time Harrelson babbles about Pippi’s not-entirely-true past on the streets is one of Wilson’s darkly funny delights. An epic catfight between Dern and co-star Cheryl Hines, similarly, is unhinged tomfoolery: a punch in the face to nice, orderly suburban America.

The film gives Wilson and Pippi a taste of the life they could have had when Wilson tracks down their biological daughter Claire. A stalking session ensures, followed by a little roughhousing in the shopping mall. Wilson and Pippi would not have been great parents.

However, Wilson finds in Claire (Isabella Amara) a rare treat. She actually wants to listen to him and spend time with him. Never mind that he’s off-balance, deranged, and a borderline-kidnapper—Claire shares his sarcastic sense of humour and unique brand of pessimistic observation. The fact that someone like Wilson can both produce and nurture the next generation either gives hope for the future or paints a dire omen for society depending on how one chooses to view it. The optimism shines through in Harrelson’s goofy performance, though, since Wilson’s earnest desire to repair his relationship with the family he never had suggests that people can change. No man, no matter how cranky, vile, or foul he may be, is beyond repair.

Wilson is now in theatres from Fox Searchlight Pictures.