There seems to be a spate of films trafficking in comedic curmudgeonry, a kind of litmus test for audiences to see just how much of an asshole a protagonist can be before reaching the breaking point. From Bad Santa to Bad Grandpa, the intent is to showcase the darkly comic side of a repellent, socially awkward individual coming to terms with their own misanthropy. A key to this sort of work succeeding while preventing complete disdain for the lead character is to cast an inherently likable individual so that no matter how galling their behaviour, there’s still a certain charm and charisma to what they’re up to.
With Wilson the filmmakers wisely chose Woody Harrelson. The guy that can be a complete shit and still, somehow, one enjoys his appearance on screen. His take on Wilson is less that of a sociopath or a Luddite hermit and more involving the machinations of a person who’s slightly out of time, baffled and bewildered by social norms that find it acceptable to isolate rather than converse, to hide behind headphones rather than to express human connection with one’s fellow man.
Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, whose Ghost World has become a kind of cult classic, Craig Johnson’s film softens some of Wilson’s edges from the source material, making him just a bit more relatable. This also gives Harrelson something to hook onto in the live action translation, and while the film is let down by its pretty banal narrative it’s no fault of the lead who gives it his absolute all.
The same can be said about Wilson’s former girlfriend played by Laura Dern, an actor who brings real chemistry to her onscreen pairing with Woody. She’s meant to be a woman who’s gone through her own travails, and while even a messed-up Dern manages to be luminous, she still brings forth the pathos required for the role. Judy Greer also provides a lighter touch, with her flighty portrayal as Shelly, a nice contrast to Wilson’s more dour behaviour. Then there’s newcomer Isabella Amara who plays the zaftig gothy girl who comes to the fore, a character that easily could be two-dimensional but thanks to an effective performance comes across as more complex than caricature.
So while the performances are there for things to really click, the film feels like it lurches along between tonal shifts. This is the same problem that befell Johnson’s previous indie outing The Skeleton Twins, so maybe this is indicative of his general craft. There needs to be something almost magical that takes place to feel that you’re caught up in the ennui of such a miserable character, and unfortunately Wilson can’t quite pull off this trick.
As a showcase for fine performances the film may entertain, and a few scenes provide real opportunity for Harrelson in particular to shine (just look to him wrestling balloons for a welcome bit of slapstick). Yet despite the charm of Woody’s on-screen obnoxiousness the film is not a particular good translation from page to screen, feeling either too cloying or too curmudgeony in equal measure. While it might please fans of Clowes’ prose or for those on the festival circuit looking for a breather from something heavier, Wilson isn’t a film that’s likely to appeal to many.