Woody Harrelson is one of our reigning underrecognized actors, versatile in hilarious and compassionate ways that defy easy typecasting. Craig Johnson’s Wilson, however, provides a showcase tailor made for the actor’s acerbic confrontational humor and brimming humanity – problem is it’s a vehicle all too unworthy of his gifts.
As the central Wilson, Harrelson is game and at home in the skin of this foul-mouthed and off-putting loner. When his father passes, Wilson seeks out his troublesome addict ex-wife Pippi (an equally well-cast Laura Dern) only to discover she had kept their child he believed to be aborted. His journey to make a relationship with the now adopted child Claire (Isabella Amara) makes for inconsistent bursts of rancid humor and heart. Adapted from his own graphic novel, Daniel Clowes’s screenplay is a series of small bites that make for a messy meal. But the star does the heavy lifting, and Harrelson is aces.
Dern is a fabulous sparring partner for Harrelson as Pippi, as detailed and worthy of her own narrative for all her prickly micro-shifts and fuck ups. While the film isn’t at the top tier of her current resurgence, it does provide yet another example of her natural ability to entertain through a humanistic approach to a messy character. With their genius chemistry, more opportunities for her and Harrelson to bounce off one another on screen, please.
The film itself becomes overly episodic to the point its meanderings and side chapters begin to define the whole with a lack of ideas and focus. For all that Harrelson is giving, the film rarely discovers any new facets of Wilson beyond restating his surface despite its certainty of his depth. There’s something to the monotonous repetition that creates for the audience the kind of everyday experience that drives Wilson’s outbursts, but by its final act the overall feeling makes for an unfirm landing.
Outside of Harrelson and Dern’s sizable gifts and solid performances, Johnson doesn’t know how to give due to the rest of his noteworthy ensemble. Margo Martindale and Cheryl Hines have extended cameos with their comic beats overlooked, while Judy Greer is a more complicated supporting character than the film thinks she is. Amara crafts a smart performance at both ends of Claire’s youthful ignorance, both delicately funny and sensitive in a way that the film needs with all its severity.
Though Harrelson is touching, the film mostly falls to the maudlin when it reaches for melancholy. Johnson was much more successful in this regard with his previous film The Skeleton Twins, perhaps a more specifically aimed screenplay than Clowes work here. There’s not much to match Clowes’s signature visual aesthetic either, adding to the spinning wheels effect.
With combating tones, Wilson is performance and film mostly out of sync.