Director: Craig Johnson
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern
3 (out of 5) Globes
You wouldn’t want to bump into Wilson (Woody Harrelson) in real life. He’s the guy who sits next to a complete stranger on an empty bus and tries to chat. He always speaks his mind, which is to say he’s often rude. His response to “This isn’t about you!” is a sarcastic/wounded, “Well, thanks for thinking about me!” He’s a malcontent, but that’s only because he’s a utopian. It’s a given that he hates smartphones and computers, but it’s really more that he misses IRL human interaction. That he’s so bad at it — he’s oblivious, boorish, impatient, un-shut-up-able — is almost too perfect.
It probably isn’t a shock to learn Wilson is a Daniel Clowes creation, he the god of anti-social freaks like Steve Buscemi’s 40-something antique blues record-collecting Seymour in “Ghost World” — lonely loners who long to be a part of a world they hate. Clowes adapted his comic to the screen himself, and the movie is a purposefully flat procession of insults and aborted plots. Suddenly and belatedly realizing he may die unloved and unremembered, the middle-aged Wilson flails about to find a new connection — someone else to glom onto and unwittingly suck dry. He tracks down his ex-wife (Laura Dern, gamely reviving her trashy “Citizen Ruth” digs), a recovering junkie and maybe ex-sex worker (it’s not clear which one’s lying about this one). When that kind of does and doesn’t quite pan out, he locates their teenage daughter (Isabella Mara), whom she told him had simply been aborted.
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At various points “Wilson” seems like it’s trying to become just like other, more affable indies: the lovers’ reunion of “Before Sunset,” the wacky road trip comedy of “Little Miss Sunshine,” the asshole redemption saga of too many to name here. These attempts always flame out, but not because Clowes can’t hack it. Like its anti-hero, it can’t stomach conformity. The film’s real anchor is Wilson’s newfound sense of cosmic un-purpose — the realization that there really may be no place in this cruel world for someone upholding principles no one else shares. Every time Wilson tries to make things better, he ruins it with his exasperating personality.
He’s bearable to us, at least to a point. Harrelson plays him with a smoothie of sweetness and aggression, his scratchy, honeysuckle voice and permanent dumb semi-smile sanding down his edges, yet leaving enough to still draw blood. The audience is initially invited to laugh with him, but after 90-some minutes even we may turn on him, want him to turn a corner. “Wilson” winds up fumbling over the finish line, finding too much closure, finally turning — as Holden Caulfield, a character who probably permanently scarred Wilson for life, would say — phony. But before that, in its final stretches, “Wilson” is kind of thrilling, as it looks like there’s a chance happiness will forever elude him. There’s a strong chance he’s someone who could never be saved, who will never figure life out, who may, at this point in his existence, not even be able to find a few inches on this planet to call home. Maybe the happy, sweet, teary, sell-out ending is just Clowes taking pity on a dead man walking, as though even he couldn’t bear the grim fate that awaits him.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge