With his performances in The Edge of Seventeen and Wilson, Woody Harrelson reminds us of his gifts not only for comedy, but for finding the inner childlike innocent in even the prickliest of characters. The men he portrays in both films could be seen as two sides of the same coin: world-weary misanthropes. Except Mr. Bruner from The Edge of Seventeen chooses his words carefully, whereas the titular character from Wilson expresses his worldview in an excessive volley of words, and often to the people who least desire to engage him. But Harrelson finds endearing qualities to both these potentially insufferable people. Mr. Bruner cares about Hailee Steinfeld’s confused, angst-ridden Nadine, though he chooses the most tough-loving, unsentimental ways to convey it. Wilson is similarly pure of heart toward his loved ones, even if he doesn’t show it to most of the world at large.
That core of sweetness is the only trait that comes close to binding together an otherwise frustratingly incoherent characterization. Mostly, Wilson comes off as a random series of unpleasant tics rather than a convincing human being. This film, adapted by Daniel Clowes from his own graphic novel, is admirable for clearly establishing Wilson’s unreliability at the outset, pitting his self-righteous voiceover narration against the realities of his condescension toward strangers. But the character we subsequently see never really adds up to more than the sum of his vulgar outbursts and flagrant disregard for conventional social graces, schizophrenically flipping from pessimism to sentimentality sometimes within the same scene.
The film’s events are driven by the death of Wilson’s father, which inspires in an increasingly lonely Wilson a desire to reconnect with his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), and the daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), he discovers wasn’t aborted by her mother, as he assumed, but delivered and put up for adoption. But his yearning to be the patriarch of a conventional nuclear family doesn’t track with his distaste for what he sees as the soul-sucking suburban lifestyle, a contradiction that the filmmakers either don’t recognize or refuses to address for the sake of indulging in easy potshots at suburbia. Such contradictions are simply part and parcel of the film’s confused whole. Throughout its running time, Wilson lurches from poignant melancholy to cartoonish slapstick, unable to settle on a consistent tone.
In Ghost World, though Terry Zwigoff and Clowes obsessed over their teen protagonist’s contemptuous view of everyone around her, they were also fully aware of the fear and loneliness from which such outsize bitterness arose, as well as the potentially damaging implications of maintaining such an attitude upon entering adulthood. Though there are similar self-aware gestures in Wilson, they mostly turn out to be skin-deep, with Wilson, Pippi and Claire surrounded by caricatures of middle- and upper-class insularity. The worst is Polly (Cheryl Hines), Pippi’s sister, who’s so monstrously judgmental of her sister’s hardscrabble lifestyle that she’s willing to lie to Wilson about what Pippi does for a living when he embarks on his quest to reconnect with his ex-wife. Clowes might have intended this graphic novel to be a critique of the kind of out-of-touch smugness Wilson represents, but the film often feels like an embodiment of that toxicity, mixed with the kind of blatantly heart-tugging sentimentality that Ghost World’s Enid would surely roll her eyes at.