Wilson: Cast Away, by David Bax
Craig Johnson’s Wilson (based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes and adapted by the author) begins with a sequence of its protagonist awakening to a new day while musing in voiceover narration about his quirky take on the world we live in and life in general. It’s not unlike the opening scenes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Sure, Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a middle-aged loner and not a charismatic high schooler. And, yes, his philosophy is less “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” and more “Life is lonely and miserable.” And Wilson unfolds over the course of painful years, not one wacky day. But, at their core, both movies are about oddballs who are resolute in their outlook despite external influences. And both movies are a bit uneven.
After his father dies and his only friend (Brett Gelman) moves away (the source material is set in Oakland but the film takes place in an unnamed but largely undisguised Minneapolis), Wilson is driven by his loneliness to reach out to his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), who left him seventeen years prior and apparently spent most of the intervening years with severe drug problems. Pregnant at the time of the divorce, she informed Wilson of her intent to have an abortion but presently she reveals to him that she had the baby after all and gave it up for adoption. Wilson hires a private detective, locates his now teenage daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), and attempts to assemble a ramshackle, de facto family out of him and these two misfit women. Through it all, he maintains his defining personality traits of disrespecting the personal space of strangers and offering unsolicited opinions on the awfulness of everything from smartphones to religion.
Wilson’s most compelling facet is its attempt to provide justice and respect to a man who is essentially every guy you avoid on the bus by keeping your earbuds in. Introduced as a hoarder of National Geographics, VHS tapes and other outdated physical media, Wilson is the kind of man who will use the urinal right next to the only other guy in the restroom even though there’s a whole row available to him. Then he’ll probably start a conversation that will quickly turn into a lecture on what the stranger is doing wrong with his life. Wilson is certainly obnoxious but, after spending enough time with him, we begin to see him as someone Conchata Ferrell’s character in Network would describe as “crusty but benign.” He wants desperately to connect with other people but doesn’t know how to do it without insulting them, especially in a world in which public interaction decreases every day as cyber interaction increases. In essence, Wilson is the personification of the saying that a cynic is only a frustrated optimist.
These elements of the character reveal themselves in part, of course, because of Clowes’ screenplay. Overwhelmingly, though, the film and its most successful elements can be chalked up to Harrelson. This is a full performance with no cracks or seams. Though Wilson talks pretty much constantly, most of Harrelson’s best work is physical. Wilson is at once both painfully uncomfortable in his skin and thoroughly without shame.
Harrelson’s commendable attempts at pathos, though, are repeatedly undercut by Johnson’s formal rigidity. The actor yearns for us to see Wilson’s raw wounds when he confronts the death of a parent or pet or the loss of a friendship to time and circumstance. The director, though, insists on a deadpan flatness (from the great cinematographer Frederick Elmes, no less, and despite a worthwhile score from Jon Brion), which does plenty to aid the film’s comedic tone but manages to undercut pretty much everything else.
Wilson is a decent movie, driven by an enjoyably uncouth bluntness and culminating in a legitimately uplifting ending. With a director who better trusted himself and his collaborators, though, it could have been so much more.