The press notes describe the character Wilson as a “big-hearted slob, lonesome bachelor, devoted father and husband, idiot, sociopath, delusional blowhard, and delicate flower.” Except for the last one it sounds like he could be President of the United States. But seriously (which this insanely amusing new comedy is thankfully not, for the most part), director Craig Johnson and writer Daniel Clowes have crafted in Wilson a quirky and offbeat delight about the kind of guy most people just might run the other way from if they saw him coming.
If there are 30 empty seats on a bus and only one other person, Wilson is the kind of guy who will come up, take the seat next to you, and launch into a one-sided conversation. It is something he does everywhere he goes — in a men’s room that means literally, as demonstrated on the film’s poster. He can be off-putting, obnoxious, odd, somewhat charming, a little nuts and vulgar, but in the blissful hands of star Woody Harrelson I found Wilson to be great company for nearly all of its 101-minute running time.
Based on Clowes’ graphic novel, the movie adaptation focuses on this middle-aged, somewhat neurotic, unfailingly (often unwisely) honest man who saunters through life alone with his faithful and beloved dog Pepper. The movie, like the book, is told in a series of vignettes strung together by Wilson’s motivation to strike up a relationship with the now-teenaged daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), he never knew he had. Through circumstance, Wilson finds himself reunited with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), who he hasn’t had contact with in 17 years. She is an equally flawed person trying to right her past life of drug addiction and prostitution by now working as a waitress. Wilson learns that the abortion he thought she got when she left him actually never happened, and Pippi had their daughter which she gave up for adoption. With his ex reluctantly in tow, Wilson sets out to find the girl and forge a relationship with her, unknown to her oblivious adoptive parents. A scene where they take Claire on an outing to a kiddie amusement park about 10 years too late is not only hilarious but oddly touching as it demonstrates the lost life Wilson might have had as he tries to make a connection with this kid.
Of course, eventually this all has to come to a boil, and it does big time, but the film never loses its way (even in an outrageous prison sequence) and seems to be saying there may be a little bit of Wilson in all of us if we aren’t afraid to let him out.
As I say in my video review above, what makes this movie soar is the exceptional cast, topped by Harrelson in another winning turn where he not only gets to demonstrate his superb comic timing (check out the part at the amusement park where he gets entangled in a kid’s gaggle of balloons), but also his unique ability to extract pathos and heartbreak at the same time he makes us laugh. Wilson is a tailor-made role for this man’s exceptional talents, and he is matched by Dern who is just terrific here, managing to find the humanity in this woman whose life took a left turn somewhere along the way.
In the large and very fine supporting cast there are marvelous turns from many of the women in Wilson’s life journeys including a killer scene with Margo Martindale who he meets in a parking lot; Cheryl Hines as Pippi’s strait-laced, uptight, polar-opposite sister; and Judy Greer, absolutely lovely and human as Wilson’s dog-sitter and confidante. Amara is a real find and completely natural and winning as Claire.
Johnson, who previously directed the similarly offbeat tale of a couple of people on the fringe, The Skeleton Twins, manages the find just the right balance of tone in a comedy that, first and foremost, never forgets its basic humanity. At some times Wilson will make you a bit uncomfortable, but this is a guy you won’t soon forget, try as you might.
Producers are Mary Jane Skalski and Jared Ian Goldman. Fox Searchlight opens the film March 24.
Do you plan to see Wilson? Let us know what you think.