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Sundance Film Review: ‘Wilson’

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Graphic novels, and the movies based on them, work better with certain topics than others. Sixteen years ago, Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World,” based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, centered on a pair of more-blasé-than-thou teenage girls who walked, and talked, outside the loop of everything they deemed boring and conventional; it was the perfect movie about the perfect pomo ingénue hipsters at the perfect “Whatever” moment. “Wilson,” directed by Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”), is also based on a graphic novel by Clowes, who wrote the film’s screenplay, and it’s driven by the same spirit of reflexive adolescent alienation — only this movie isn’t about kids. It’s about a lonely middle-aged bachelor curmudgeon misanthrope, named Wilson (we never learn if it’s his first or last name), who has let the entire culture pass him by, like a train he decided to jump off, only in his mind it’s the train’s fault.

The character is played, with a jaunty lack of self-pity, by Woody Harrelson, who wears horn-rims, a graying beard, and a nerd’s practical wardrobe (plaid shirt, Dockers). Wilson lives with his dog in a cruddy apartment stacked with old paperbacks, and when he’s out on the street, he’ll go up to a stranger and commence an eager-beaver “conversation,” paying no heed to how little his company is desired. He’ll subject them to one of his critiques of everything that’s wrong with society, which he spins out with a kind of brash autodidactic literacy. If his observations were actually interesting, then maybe the people he was talking to wouldn’t look like they were being assaulted. But Wilson tends to say things like “Aren’t you a little old to be doing all that computer stuff?” or “Why the hell do people move to the suburbs? It’s like a living death.”

If suburb-bashing sounds a little…I don’t know, 1985, then welcome to Wilson’s world. He’s not dim, but he’s stuck in a soggy bubble of aging boomer insights: technology is bad, hanging out is good, corporate homogenization is bad, saying whatever comes into your head with no filter is good. The hook of Wilson’s personality is that he’s an oddball-outsider who cuts through the bull. In truth, though, he sounds like an aging cranky white male whose arbitrary complaints boil down to the world no longer being the one that he grew up in. (If this were 100 years ago, he’s be griping about cars and telephones.) All of which is to say that in “Wilson,” Daniel Clowes’ voice, which was once acerbically hip, sounds dated.

Movies based on graphic novels don’t need to be superficial. Just look at “American Splendor,” in which the character of Harvey Pekar was a bohemian

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