Published on July 12th, 2017 | by Dave Scaddan0
All we are saying, is give Wilson a chance. The third film adaptation of a Daniel Clowes work is a good movie hurt by marketing.
Wilson, the third Daniel Clowes project to be adapted to film, had a very brief run at my local theatre, so I was keen for the recent DVD release. While waiting, I heard very little about it, and what I heard wasn’t good. Imagine my surprise then, when Wilson turned out to be a great adaptation, a loyal yet bold film full of risky performances.
This may be one of those situations when a lot of viewers dislike a movie for the same reasons that a smaller number of viewers adore it. Wilson is not particularly concerned with devoting lots of time and effort to achieving conventional ends like character arcs and closed endings. Clowes’ graphic novel is chiefly a mesh of character studies, and so is the film he’s adapted from it – the movie works because each of the cartoonist’s illustrated figures becomes a more developed and intricate character on screen. While Wilson-the-comic did have a solid overall plot line, it was also presented like a serial newspaper cartoon sometimes, where little vignettes that function on their own are thrown into the story to give a character a chance to quip or muse about something off-handedly. This is maybe why I can easily forgive the film for seeming choppy in places – even when parts of the film seem more like a series of sketches, they all work to make Wilson-the-character more funny and real.
Woody Harrelson will be one of the reasons this movie won’t get the affection it deserves. This is the first time a Clowes film has had this big of a name attached to the lead. Art School Confidential featured John Malkovich and Angelica Houston in smaller roles, and Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson were just starting out when they were in the magnificent Ghost World adaptation. Even though Steve Buscemi was a pretty big draw in Ghost World, he wasn’t a vehicle for the whole project the way Woody is for this one. All the marketing for this film features Harrelson’s name or face or both quite prominently, which will lead to many people who might like it not watching it, and lead to many who are drawn in by said marketing to be disappointed. Wilson cannot be categorized as a comedy any more than the original graphic novel could be described as “funny pages.” The look of this movie is very much the look of a comedy (urinal on the case cover, Woody’s face framed to be an almost Kingpin-esque caricature, and so on) so I’m putting many of Wilson’s poor reviews down to this slight crossing of wires.
Woody nails it though. Wilson-the-character is an old-fashioned, pissed off, middle-aged man whose idealistic notions about the world have made him scathingly bitter and lonely. As slickly as Clowes puts this social miscreant through cringe-inducing scene after scene, Harrelson works the role to the hilt. He’s not reluctant to nurture this character’s annoying side, letting the warmer side of him be the subtler accent to Wilson, instead of doing this the other way around as most roles and actors do. If he ever overplays a moment, it’s only because there are so many great moments to be played in this movie, so some are bound to induce a squint, and so what? Again, the comic did that too.
Yet Woody Harrelson is not even the best thing about Wilson. That pedestal is reserved for Laura Dern, who plays Wilson’s estranged wife. Her performance as a recovering drug addict and prostitute who is trying to cling to the straight life using a job as a waitress and a reconnection with her ex is an eye-popper. One can actually see and hear the years of desperation and abuse on screen, along with a bitter grit that makes her character’s recovery believable. The film’s best scene (and the one that gives Wilson a passing grade on the old Bechdel test) involves Dern’s character, Pippi, reconnecting with her straight-laced sister played by Cheryl Hines. It’s no knock to the leading actor that the best moment is one he’s not in. In fact, Harrelson’s Wilson is so brash and expressive that when this reunion of sisters blows up in his absence, it works better because he’s set the table.
Give Wilson a chance. He’s not someone you’d want to pal around with. Without the veneer of comic strip page or movie screen between you, he’d offend and irk you the moment he found some fundamental difference between you to drill down on and apply pressure. Veneer in place though, he’s so warmly bitter, infusing his way all the way through you and back out your pores like a sip of strong, hot, dark coffee.