Adapted by Daniel Clowes from one of his graphic novels and given a world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and on limited release in the UK, Wilson is a comedy about a neurotic middle-aged man who never grew up and the journey he takes to finally being happy and grown in his own skin. With a small but stellar cast we follow Wilson for a few years of his life as big changes come.
Woody Harrelson plays the obnoxious but oddly charming Wilson, a man who rubs people the wrong way with his lack of mental filter and determination to ask aloud every insulting question that pops into his head of anyone around him. He is understandably feeling alone, and so decides to track down his ex-wife, who tells him that he has a 17 year old daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) he never knew of. And so begins the insanity that is Wilson.
He lives as the world did pre-internet/social media, he talks to strangers, be they working at a cafe table or on their way to college by coach, tapping them or nudging them to get their attention, to try and build a connection. For younger viewers this will come across as odd having never done this themselves. For older generations it reminds you of how people used to do things, this was how you made friends/got dates/passed the time. For Gen Y-ers it’s quite strange to watch, you remember doing this in your formative years but in your late teens social media hit and we followed suit, becoming more plugged in and closed off as time went on. Watching Wilson try the old approach makes you cringe regardless of age, but for those who remember doing things that way there’s a twang of nostalgic remorse for that simpler time.
Pippi (Laura Dern) is a nice counterpoint to Wilson; she shares the viewer’s frustrations with his way of being and refusal to change. Pippi isn’t perfect herself, but unlike Wilson she is fully aware of and freely admits to her faults. As his ex-wife she has both loved and hated him, and though the years since she left have been hard so still falls easily back into the love/hate relationship. As a couple they are odd, at once being both really good and utterly terrible for one another. But the sum of their flaws makes them a more realistic couple, rather than the Hollywood fairy-tale.
The plot of the film is a little haphazard, things move at breakneck pace and flit faster than you’d expect for a film that covers a good 4 or so years of Wilson’s life. But it feels like it is meant to be that way. The haphazard nature reflecting Wilson’s own personality and internal crises. If this wasn’t done purposely then they really got lucky as this oddness suits the film.
The film blends dark and light moments throughout, and is reminiscent of a tragicomedy in this respect. It manages to tackle adoption, family betrayals and loneliness in a way that doesn’t mar the film by creating a thoroughly depressing atmosphere. Likewise the utterly crazy laugh-out-loud moments are interspersed through the film evenly, bringing levity where needed without becoming too ridiculous – an impressive feat when you see the insane lengths the titular character goes to in order to see his daughter once he finds out she exists. Somehow for a rather madcap story it manages to feel mostly reasonable and allows you to enjoy the fault-filled characters escapes without feeling that they’re just doing everything for laughs.
This isn’t a film that’s going to blow you away in the traditional sense, but then it’s not a traditional film. It’s hard to define the film as being simply any one genre as it feels like a deft blend of several. This is a film that will make you feel, not just for the characters and their plights, but also for what we’ve all lost in communicating with others via screens. The ending, though a little bittersweet, has so much light and hope that this really is a feel good film. I thoroughly enjoyed watching those years of Wilson’s life and the rollercoaster of ups and downs therein, and came out of watching it with a real love of the character, because even though he is vulgar and abrasive he’s also a touching and emotional character. In fact they all are.
This film is on am extremely limited release in UK cinemas (which many have lamented on Twitter) so this may be a hard one to track down, but if you can I’d urge you to watch it, we need more films like this with nuanced performances from brilliant actors of complicated flawed characters and a story that leaves you satisfied as the end credits roll.
Overall rating: 4.5 out of 5
Wilson is a film of enjoyable flawed characters and situations that goes far beyond being just simply a comedy.