The grumpy old(er) man comedy is a great tradition. See Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, or the forthcoming A Man Called Ove for examples of hilarious cantankerousness ultimately giving way to a heartwarming feeling. This is what Wilson tries to recreate. Alas, Woody Harrelson’s Wilson – though superbly cast, like the film as a whole – is just not sympathetic enough. As the character is established, his wilfully wayward behaviour is often funny yet frequently smacks of affectation. In a way, Daniel Clowes’ characterisation here is more 2D and cartoonish than that of his own graphic novel source.
When the narrative – drastically fleshed-out compared to the more episodic book – turns to serious fare, the cynical comedy really leaves a hole. This can’t be filled by empathy for the hard-to-like characters, despite objectively sad scenarios. Harrelson, too, is less convincing in Wilson’s apparently more sensitive moments, contributing to the film’s failure to create an emotional connection with the audience.
Though the previously-attached director Alexander Payne left Wilson early in the game, the finished film feels like a Payne movie in many ways; Payne regulars Judy Greer and the ever-underrated Margo Martindale appear, and there are brief road movie-esque stretches which echo About Schmidt and Sideways. Unlike in Payne’s work, however, Wilson’s rather twee happy ending feels extremely contrived.
Director Craig Johnson’s previous film, The Skeleton Twins, based on a screenplay he co-wrote, was far more adept at juggling dark humour with sadness and despair. He’s still a man to watch, but Wilson is missable.
Wilson has been a long time coming yet sadly it’s a disappointment when compared to similar character comedies and to Terry Zwigoff’s classic adaptation of Clowes’ Ghost World. The oddball comedy of the first act forms an early high bar that Wilson’s narrative and characters can’t sustain.
CAST: Woody Harrelson, Sandy Oian-Thomas, Judy Greer, Laura Dern
DIRECTOR: Craig Johnson
WRITER: Daniel Clowes (screenplay and graphic novel)
SYNOPSIS: A lonely, neurotic and hilariously honest middle-aged man reunites with his estranged wife and meets his teenage daughter for the first time.