There’s nothing worse than sitting through a movie that has no sense of self. Wilson has heart, I think. I’m not sure… What I do know is it doesn’t have its wits about it.
Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a pseudo-intellectual boorish jerk who can’t get out of his own way. He is a man desperate for a connection. As his father lies dying in the hospital, Wilson begs him for some kind of comfort or insightful last words. The scene seems a parody of countless other scenes from movies like this.
From here he goes on a quest to find his ex-girlfriend, Pippi (Laura Dern). It’s revealed that they broke up after she had an abortion. After tracking her down, Wilson discovers she’s had a troubled life and actually had the baby. To his astonishment, she gave said baby up for adoption.
This feels like a parody of a Sundance movie. Maybe it is. Just not a good one. Wilson then tracks down his daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), and tries to connect, both with his ex and his long lost daughter. After meeting Claire, he decides they should all take a road trip to see Pippi’s sister, Polly (Cheryl Hines). From here Claire’s parents will call the cops and Wilson will go to jail for kidnapping.
Wilson is either a parody that’s not quite daring enough in its scathing indictment, or it’s a pale hollow waste of a talented cast. Daniel Clowes adapted his graphic novel, unread by me, for the screen. I’m not sure how the dialogue reads in the graphic novel, but onscreen it’s death.
The characters all sound alike. When Pippi loses her temper, she sounds exactly like Wilson when he loses his. I’m a man of many staid and inventive cuss words, but here the cursing just feels wrong. It feels like they’re cursing because Clowes doesn’t know what they should be saying. In contrast, when you watch a Kevin Smith movie, all the characters talk the same, but they don’t sound the same. The dialogue has character. A Dante rant sounds wildly different from a Randall rant.
Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson are too good for this. Pippi and Wilson might have been fascinating characters had they been allowed to exist in a better-focused movie with more nerve. Dern’s Pippi is particularly frustrating because all of her character arcs take place off screen. The audience sees none of her major decisions. Pippi decides to go along with Wilson on his mad quest to find their daughter. Not seen. Pippi realizes she loves her AA sponsor while Wilson is in prison and decides to get her life together and move to Australia. A moment that sounds like a movie in its own right, not seen.
But every excruciating and social agonizing moment of Wilson’s external and internal thought process is laid bare for us. Except he’s not interesting. His complaints are cliched. He thinks the race is doomed because nobody talks to anybody anymore. Or he needs to connect to his daughter, so there’s some sign on this planet that he was here.
These aren’t philosophical or existential meanderings. These are gripes. Selfish, myopic, truncated, ill-informed complaints. Now you could have these same opinions and thoughts and still have a good movie. Sadly we are not in a good film, not by a longshot.
This is a movie that is thoroughly tepid and unimaginative. It tries to offend or to shock but does neither because it’s so obvious it’s trying. When Wilson shouts at a customer for interrupting a beautiful moment between him and Pippi it feels forced. If only because the customer is complaining about how they’re in a hurry, they have tickets to Wicked.
Wilson’s anger has nothing to do with Wicked or even the customer. It’s from someone interrupting a moment that he wanted to be perfect. Again this feels like a parody, but it fails due to the fact there seems to be no real style or direction.
Craig Johnson directs the movie with an ambling leisureliness that is death to any and all real drama or comedy. Wilson goes from scene to another, from one town to another, all without any apparent source of income. Characters make baffling decisions both on and off screen with no emotional or actual logic connected to them. Their behaviors and perfunctory statements seem rote and nakedly mechanical.
That this movie wastes the talent of Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson is sad, that it drags the national treasures of Margo Martindale and Judy Greer into its gaping pedantic maw is unforgivable. I would happily pay to see these four, or at least the last two, in anything, ANYTHING else. What little time Martindale and Greer have onscreen are the moments Wilson becomes something less than a chore to sit through.
As we sit and watch these characters behaving in ways no one would behave, we’re left wondering what the movie is trying to say. Is it a parody? No. It’s not scathing or funny enough. Nor is it all that insightful. Is it genuine? It can’t be. Anyone who behaves as these characters do would, at best, be institutionalized.
This was one of the worst showings I’ve had at the movies this year. I say this not just because of the waste of a fine, and in some cases, prodigiously talented, cast. Roger Ebert famously said “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” This movie has no ‘how.’ It’s a gormless lazy mess.