Daniel Clowes, a cartoonist who’s best known for his film adaptation of his graphic novel Ghost World, adapts another one of his popular comics with Wilson. Wilson is a middle-aged misanthrope who nonetheless offers his unsolicited opinions to anyone within earshot. He’s a miserable man living in Oakland, California who spends his time lamenting the mistakes of his life and missing his “crack whore” ex-wife. The Wilson collection consists of several one page strips featuring a larger narrative of Wilson’s life, a narrative that here makes up a feature length film directed by Craig Johnson.
Due to the nature of the source material, Wilson in film form often feels like a series of vignettes, a disjointed grouping of scenes and scenarios which pits the title character in various awkward and cringe-worthy situations. Fortunately, the callous titular grump is played by affable stoner Woody Harrelson, whose comic timing and demeanor make Wilson at least somewhat of a sympathetic character.
Still, even Harrelson’s presence cannot save Wilson from being a slog, and the 94 minute film feels like an eternity as you watch Wilson get into an increasingly escalating string of embarrassing encounters. The film’s main storyline, which connects the overriding narrative, involves Wilson reuniting with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern) and discovering his child he thought she had aborted instead was given up for adoption. Naturally, Wilson coerces Pippi into stalking and meeting his biological daughter Claire (Isabella Amara), who is seventeen years old and has no idea who Wilson or Pippi are. The whole enterprise is so appalling and ridiculous that it feels staged, though Wilson’s earnest desire to be in his daughter’s life comes off as desperate as it’s writer likely intended.
Actresses Laura Dern and Judy Greer (as the Wilson’s kind dog-sitter Shelly) deserve some credit for playing women that have feelings for the prickly Wilson. Recipients of Wilson’s affection are not immune to his insults and ramblings, and one quickly realizes why Pippi took her baby and ran all those years ago. A highlight of the film comes during a scene Wilson shares with Margo Martindale, who’s treated to the world’s worst date from our hero.
While Wilson does earn a few legitimate laughs here and there, the rest of the film feels like an endurance test, and there were a couple moments that had me wanting to leave for the exit. The film’s underlying cynicism and worldview might work a little better if the main character was not even more attention-deprived and lonely as the rest of us. Even though that’s likely the whole point of it all, it does not make for compelling cinema.