Woody Harrelson plays the titular character in Wilson, theoretically to be heralded as both the film adaptation of Daniel Clowes' graphic novel and the latest directorial effort from Craig Johnson, whose previous film The Skeleton Twins was a minor masterpiece with major feeling. Wilson comes nowhere close to satisfying as fully as The Skeleton Twins or even 2001's Ghost World (another film adaptation of a Clowes work), but Harrelson and especially Laura Dern keep one's interest long after the story does.
Indeed, watching Dern's ridiculously pliable and expressive face convey a gamut of emotions is the key delight of Wilson, which centers around Harrelson's middle-aged curmudgeon whose penchant for critique-laden observations repel rather than attract those around him. His comfortably misanthropic existence, one in which his dog Pepper serves as his only companion, is thrown off-balance when his best friend moves away and Wilson's dad passes, events which leave Wilson feeling abandoned, unmoored, and feeling his own mortality.
Wilson tracks down ex-wife Pippi (Dern), a former prostitute and drug addict now on the straight and narrow and working as a waitress at a steak restaurant. He marvels at her appearance, complimenting her for not looking like the "skanky, rat-haired, snaggle-toothed, sore-infested ho" he expected. Two reconnect and, when he wonders what their life would have been like if she hadn't gotten the abortion and left him 17 years ago, she reveals that she didn't go through with the abortion but gave up their daughter for adoption. This elates Wilson, who locates their teenage daughter, an angst-filled outsider named Claire (Isabella Amara) living in a wealthy suburban household.
This dysfunctional family reunion of oddballs, much like the rest of the film, meanders along, unfolding in a series of comic strip-like vignettes. The episodic nature of the narrative sometimes works against the film as does Clowes' not doing more to flesh out the relatively superficial characterisations from his source work. These make it difficult to have any sort of emotional connection with or investment in the characters.
Dern overcomes this handicap with the sheer force of her talent - she's that rare actor that, though one is well aware of her immense talents, still surprises you with the depth of their abilities. Harrelson is not in that particular league but he does a very fine job of essaying Wilson - his idiosyncratic magnetism goes a long way in tempering the character's unlikeability, though the character's arc from obnoxious grouch to sentimental family man is a clumsy one to navigate.
Directed by: Craig Johnson
Written by: Daniel Clowes; adapted from his graphic novel
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Mary Lynn Rajskub