Woody Harrelson plays a lonely neurotic inspired to take another shot at a fulfilling life when he learns he has a teenage daughter in Craig Johnson’s film of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel.
The universe of graphic artist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes, with its curmudgeons, misfits, ranting neurotics and dyspeptic visionaries, is a tricky place to inhabit. Terry Zwigoff nailed it best with the cool detachment of Ghost World but then missed the mark almost completely with Art School Confidential, which veered into self-conscious misanthropy and snide skewering of easy targets. Director Craig Johnson, following up on his dark but disarming The Skeleton Twins, gets only a fraction closer in the patchy Wilson, which boasts some funny vignettes but fails in the crucial test of making us care much about the title character.
That presents Fox Searchlight with a considerable challenge in finding an audience for this strained quirk-a-thon, since Woody Harrelson’s performance as Wilson, an unapologetic middle-aged mess given to unfiltered oversharing, is the miscalculated main event.
An unofficial cousin to memorable screen cynics, sourpusses and obsessives like Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, Paul Giamatti in American Splendor and Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Harrelson’s Wilson never seems quite as at home as those actors in his eccentric character’s itchy skin. He has some quasi-vulnerable moments of scrappy humanity beneath all the shtick, but mostly this is a movie in which the lead actor, director, and even the writer, adapting his own material, try way too hard. They all appear to be winking at us from behind a twisted reality too pleased with its sardonic edge to acquire any poignancy.
Wilson does have the companionship of a great screen dog, a wire fox terrier named Pepper, who is a natural people magnet when they’re out for walks, until her owner sends them running with his offputting manner. Johnson attempts to ennoble this cozy if embattled man-and-dog duo by having them stroll past a movie theater playing Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D.
When the health of Wilson’s ailing father takes a grim turn, he leaves Pepper with sweet-natured dogsitter Shelly (Judy Greer) and travels to visit the old man. But he arrives too late for any kind of healing to take place. Since his only kinda-sorta friends (Mary Lynn Rajskub and Brett Gelman) are moving away, that gets Wilson hankering for the human connection that’s missing in his life.
A grouch at odds with the modern world, Wilson rails in voiceover and in intrusive harangues at random strangers (where Harrelson is at his anarchic best) about his contempt for the Internet age and all its gadgets, bemoaning the undignified sadness of people sitting alone staring at tiny screens. And yet his solitude is far unhealthier. But that irony seems somewhat stale at this point, packing neither pathos nor wit.
He calls on an old childhood friend (David Warshofsky), whose rancid personality has only worsened with age, and tries to hit on a crabby fellow animal lover at the local pet boutique (Lauren Weedman), who dismisses him as a psycho. A flirty onlooker (Margo Martindale) whose previous boyfriend turned out to be gay makes an unsuccessful play for Wilson, though their half-hearted date is not a total loss. When he mentions missing Pippi, the wife who left him years earlier, Martindale’s tech-savvy character sets him on Pippi’s path with a few quick steps on her smart phone.
Some of these early encounters, which betray the compartmentalized story breakdown of the graphic novel, are quite amusing in their acidic way, notably those with Weedman (Looking) and Martindale. The movie also perks up a little when a ratty-looking Laura Dern enters as the frazzled Pippi, a recovering drug addict and possible former hooker, now trying to stay straight and hold down a waitressing job. Underwhelmed to see him though still susceptible to his flattery, she reveals after sex that the baby he believed she aborted was actually born and put up for adoption.
With a little detective work, Wilson locates Claire (Isabella Amara), now 17 and living in nearby Portland with her adoptive parents in a suburban McMansion. Wilson drags along Pippi to stalk the girl, an outsider like her biological parents. When he witnesses her being bullied by school peers at the mall, he chooses that awkward moment for an ambush introduction.
Amara is appealing in the part, bringing layers of guarded sensitivity to a character that evolves nicely over the course of the movie. Claire backs off with an eye-roll and an “OK, bye” at first, but is intrigued enough to keep giving the over-eager Wilson and the more cautious Pippi a chance to get to know her, unbeknownst to her adoptive folks. Pippi, whose self-esteem was long ago dismantled, dreams of redemption by presenting herself to her disapproving sister, Polly (Cheryl Hines), as a whole person with a happy family. So Wilson makes it happen, getting Claire on board for a weekend trip. Which goes very badly.
Hines is delicious as the frosty Polly, withering judgment emanating from her every glance. But despite her snippy manner, the violent conflict that triggers disaster feels inorganic to Dern’s shortchanged character, even for a woman who’s been around the block as often as Pippi. Not once but twice in the movie does she start slugging with unconvincing motivation. The second incident has dire consequences for Wilson in particular, who is subjected to harsh treatment that would break many men. But it somehow grinds him out the other side better equipped to give happiness a serious shot.
The inevitable turn toward sentimentality is telegraphed far enough in advance for it to lack any element of surprise or genuine emotional reward. The responsibility for that lies as much with Clowes’ choppy script as with Johnson’s pedestrian direction, which fails to locate the same heart in his characters’ disgruntlement that distinguished The Skeleton Twins. There’s a nagging superficiality to the characterizations that makes it hard to care much about anybody on the screen. Wilson is both a sad sack and a stubborn optimist, and that duality is never convincingly resolved.
Cinematographer Frederick Elmes and production designer Ethan Tobman infuse the movie with warm colors — simultaneously heightened and muted — and lovely bittersweet glimpses of a fading America of Mom-and-Pop shops, without overdoing the quaintness. Jon Brion’s playful score also provides a lift. But despite its appealing performers and some tasty comic moments, Wilson overestimates our affection for a grating antihero only mildly warmed by Harrelson’s ambling charm.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Isabella Amara, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, David Warshofsky, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Brett Gelman, Lauren Weedman
Production company: Next Wednesday
Director: Craig Johnson
Screenwriter: Daniel Clowes, based on his graphic novel
Producers: Mary Jane Skalski, Jared Ian Goldman
Director of photography: Frederick Elmes
Production designer: Ethan Tobman
Costume designer: Christopher Peterson
Music: Jon Brion
Editor: Paul Zucker
Casting: David Rubin
Rated R; 94 minutes.