Directed by Craig Johnson
Opens March 24
Amazing, the way the right pair of glasses can bring a comic-strip character to life. Woody Harrelson is not an actor necessarily known for his work as a chameleon, perhaps even less so now that he’s re-emerged as one of our more reliably delightful (and sometimes mush-mouthed) character actors. His late-period trademarks—sardonic drawl, mischievous grin—are not exactly what I would associate with a character written and drawn by cartoonist Daniel Clowes (on film and in print: Ghost World; still just in print: The Death-Ray and Ice Haven). Yet when Harrelson slaps on a pair of thick, dark-rimmed glasses and starts rambling inappropriately at strangers, seeing the merest solitude as an opening for one-sided conversations, he does indeed possess the spirit of Wilson (first name or last name unspecified), subject of a Clowes book and now a Fox Searchlight semi-indie.
The Clowes book was advertised as an original graphic novel (rather than material reworked or collected from his Eightball comic book), and so it is. But it’s also, if anything, trickier material to adapt than Ghost World—though maybe not quite the difficulty level of Art School Confidential, which was derived from a two-page comic spread, from which several jokes were already used in Ghost World. Wilson the book is a series of newspaper-style panels and strips that parody and tweak the form while toying with Peanuts-style depression, all grown up. The accumulation of its strips, some of which include substantial jumps in time, follows the efforts of the cranky, talkative Wilson to reunite with his estranged ex and connect with the teenage daughter he never knew he had.
That’s the deal with Craig Johnson’s film, too, adapted by Clowes from his own work. As a feature it demands a less strictly blackout style, and when it does imitate the rhythms of a gag strip, it feels less like parody and more like overconfidence that Harrelson can put punctuation on any scene by detonating Wilson’s blunt observations. After a protracted opening and the death of his father, Wilson rediscovers and attaches himself to his former wife Pippi (Laura Dern), who’s just barely keeping it together. When she casually informs him that he’s the father of a now-teenage girl she gave up for adoption, Wilson insists that they track her down. Their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) is a round-faced goth-loner type who has the wherewithal to note, upon observing Wilson: “I always wondered how I got like this.”
She means cynical and ill-fitting with civilized society, but Harrelson makes Wilson a more excitable crank philosopher than the comics version. It was easy to read dialogue from the straight-Clowes Wilson as muttering or ranting, but Harrelson is more apt to exclaim, still oblivious to his unpleasantness but more confident about his obliviousness. At times, this adjustment threatens to turn Wilson into just another indie-movie eccentric with no filter—get this, he says what he thinks, no matter how inappropriate (or no matter how close it comes to a secondhand George Carlin routine about the absurdities of modern life). But Clowes knows this guy, his obsessions and his weaknesses, so well and so specifically that he’s able to give Harrelson plenty of oddball nuance to work with. His deranged glee in speaking his mind fits in with his spells of melancholy, frustration, and downright despair.
Every time Wilson threatens to follow the Little Miss Sunshine model of a misfit family pitted against more put-together squares, it returns to the Clowes blueprint enough to undermine most of the sentimentality—though not all. Though it’s amusing to consider what Wilson (or Clowes, for that matter) would think of the moments where the pianos on the musical score swell with emotion, it doesn’t play like a sly joke. Johnson senses that he can neither fully neuter the material nor stick to its staccato bleakness, but his movie doesn’t seem sure of where to land instead. Visually, it feels adrift compared to the stark, panel-like compositions Terry Zwigoff used in Ghost World: More polished, maybe, but far less distinct.
It’s the actors, then, who keep the movie honest. Harrelson hasn’t had a lead role this grabby in ages, and lands plenty of laughs. Both Dern and Amara are just right, as is the mix of character actors and weirdo bit players that make up the often very funny supporting cast. This isn’t nearly Ghost World, nor is it at the level of Alexander Payne, who was once slated to direct. But the movie gets by, and works better than it probably should have—which for Wilson should count as a major victory.