[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from the Sundance Film Festival; Wilson opens in limited release this weekend]
I’ve long argued that characters don’t need to be likable as long as they’re compelling. Unfortunately, Craig Johnson’s Wilson features a character who is both unlikable as well as uninteresting. While star Woody Harrelson seems to be having a ball playing an outspoken weirdo who has trouble understanding or respecting social cues, he’s stuck in a film that’s an absolute chore. Johnson’s film carries itself as if it’s funnier or cleverer than it actually is, and while it may be adapted from an acclaimed graphic novel from author Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay), Wilson plays like far too many other indie dramedies: short on wit, long on curse words, and eager for a pat resolution.
Wilson (Harrelson) leads an awkward, lonely life, but he’s spurred to find his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern) after his father passes away. After tracking her down, he learns that their baby, whom he thought she had aborted, was actually put up for adoption. Wilson and Pippi track down the unhappy teenager, Claire (Isabella Amara), and Wilson feels for the first time that this makeshift family might fill the hole in his life. However, past tensions end up landing Wilson in worse trouble than when he started out.
I’ll say this for Johnson’s direction: he tackles the material with such a light touch that we almost forget about the creepiness of Wilson’s actions. The film doesn’t really pause to consider Claire’s point of view, which is that two total strangers who gave her up for adoption have now reentered her life and want to spend an inordinate amount of time with her. Since Johnson isn’t really concerned with the emotional reality of his situations, it leaves Wilson free to just be quirky and stretch for laughs its never really earns.
While I don’t have a problem with people cursing in films (or cursing in general), it feels like a crutch in Wilson. People swear because the dialogue isn’t clever enough to get a laugh on its own, so it’s punctuated with “fucks” and “shits” and “goddamns” as if naughty words automatically make things funnier. It speaks to the overall laziness of the film, and rather than illustrating the characters or giving them definition, in only serves to highlight how hollow they truly are.
Harrelson is one of the best actors of his generation, and while he seems to be having a lot of fun playing someone as outspoken as Wilson, the performance lacks the shading and nuance of his other memorable roles. He does more with his supporting turn in last year’s The Edge of Seventeen than he does with the entirety of Wilson, and that’s because Wilson feels far more contrived. It’s a character who’s always reaching for a laugh as if we’re all supposed to be in awe in a person who has no social graces and casually insults those around him.
Given though source material, the cast, and even the director (Johnson’s previous film, The Skeleton Twins, was quite good), Wilson should have been a much stronger film instead of something that attempts to coast on Harrelson’s performance, naughty language, and mawkish sentiment.
Wilson opens in limited release on March 24th.