In Wilson, screenwriter Daniel Clowes returns to his favorite character type: the misanthrope. As with Ghost World and Art School Confidential, his protagonists — originating from his graphic novels or the comic book series Eightball — are always despondent about life and their part in it. They’re happy around specific, often kitschy objects while people just utterly baffle them. But where the previous films approach the difficulty of wanting to be alone from a youthful and angry place, Wilson approaches it with a middle-aged malaise and the realization that you can still be lonely even if you want to be alone.
Woody Harrelson stars as Wilson, a man seemingly happy with that solitary life until his father’s death wakes him up to fact that he is miserably lonely. His grasps at human connections lead him to his in-recovery ex-wife (Laura Dern) and the daughter he never knew he had (Isabella Amara). The predicament puts Wilson into vignettes that vary from painfully awkward to surprisingly poignant. Many are pulled almost verbatim from Clowes’s Wilson graphic novel, but even the scenes devised for the movie illustrate the character’s desire for contact even as he faces a continued exhaustion with the modern world and its ever-present technology.
A lot of these episodes will feel familiar to fans of Clowes’s work. Some of them will, sadly, feel tired; particularly in the first half-hour as Wilson meanders his way toward the main plot. But Harrelson anchors the material admirably, offering a boyish charm whenever Wilson attempts to connect to a stranger out in the world and quickly switching to venomous contempt when his entreaties are rebuffed in favor of earbuds. By the end of the film, it is easy to see that Harrelson’s voice is the one Clowes has been looking for since he began his foray into movie making.
Dern also gives a solid performance, offering her all to the hot mess that is Pippi. While perhaps not as realized a character as possible in the writing – she’s practically a cipher in the graphic novel – Dern provides a real lived-in quality that makes the character’s choices feel more organic than they might seem in the script. The film also features a number of cameos and one great rebuttal to Wilson’s know-it-all persona thanks to Judy Greer’s Shelly.
Director Craig Johnson maintains a lot of the style first pioneered in Clowes adaptations by Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World while also creating a fairly credible world for Wilson to inhabit. Some of the situations could easily be realized in more cartoonish sets, color palettes and framing – in fact, Clowes’s art style invites a cartoony look – but Johnson lets the writing and performances take prominence to highlight how these absurdities can still occur in real life.
But at the same time, it means Wilson and Pippi can be insufferable and it is easy to see how audiences would fine their interactions off-putting. The script attempts to give the viewer time to breathe and empathize with the pair, but the final film never quite finds the right balance of sour and sweet to make them both truly sympathetic.
Then again, Clowes never really asks that of his audience, even if the language of film almost always demands it. This may lead to a disconnect for some viewers; particularly in the last third of the film, when Wilson finds himself in a situation many — including this reviewer — may not think he’s earned.
The end result is a film that is faithful to the graphic novel, but not completely satisfying. It attempts to be wish-fulfillment for the lonely loner, but Clowes’s world-weariness never sits at ease with that mission statement. While not the worst of the Clowes adaptations – that dishonor still belongs to Art School Confidential – it still lacks a certain freshness, even as it tries to mine some new ground. Like the character himself, Wilson never connects in the way it desperately wants to.