We all have that one friend who has literally no filter. Well, imagine that person multiplied by ten and you might approach the level of social honesty that the title character displays in Wilson. Played with a sly grin and twinkle in his eye, Woody Harrelson fully embraces the vulgar and obnoxious Wilson, imbuing him with a charm that has the final say in each awkward situation in this film adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name.
In an attempt to reconnect with the world, the lonesome loose lipped Wilson thrusts himself back into society, which leads to a reunion with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern) and the discovery that he’s a father. Pippi had a baby girl shortly after they split seventeen years prior and put her up for adoption. Wilson convinces Pippi that their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) deserves to know who her real parents are. Once they track her down and meet, Wilson finds himself unable to let go of this cobbled together family unit.
Writer Daniel Clowes and director Craig Johnson set up a world grounded in realism to surround the larger than life Wilson. This gives way to hilarious encounters where people react in natural and sometimes surprising ways to Wilson’s candid remarks and abnormal behavior. He goes out of his way to speak with people, starting up conversation with a man while he’s relieving himself at the urinal or sitting right next to another guy to chat even though every other seat on the train is empty. His brutally honest nature provides numerous laugh-out-loud moments that linger even longer in the brain because it’s all based in truth. Packaged within the laughs are important questions and enlightening reminders on why we behave the way we do today that gives the comedy depth and added potency.
Wilson says exactly what he’s thinking and although he can come off as extremely insensitive, watching the varying results of this serves a major theme of the film – progress. Something of a dinosaur at the start of the film, he points to technology as the reason why people don’t talk anymore. Watching people plug their earphones in to avoid speaking to him proves him right. But in reentering society, he also learns to appreciate technology. It’s through the use of a cell phone and social media that he’s able to call his ex-sister in law (Cheryl Hines) to find out where Pippi was working. A tender video chat later in the film further exemplifies the positive ways in which tech can affect our lives. Wilson does a great job of acknowledging the pitfalls of modern tech while also demonstrating ways in which it is beneficial in fostering connection.
Despite his blunt speech and behavioral shortcomings, Wilson has every good intention in the world and the film is full of moments that put his unconditional affection for his loved ones on display. Beating up a group of kids in the mall for weight shaming his daughter is something he does without a single thought. Still, Wilson could easily have come across as an unlikable nuisance, so much credit has to be attributed to Woody Harrelson, who manages to punctuate each insensitive act with puppy dog innocence. It really becomes impossible to think of anyone else playing this role.
The talent around Harrelson is also excellent in bringing to life the quirky build-a-family that he works so hard to keep. None more so than Laura Dern, who embodies the temperamental Pippi with the soul of a dreamer and the mind of a pessimist. A former drug addict and prostitute, Pippi desperately wants to get her life back on track but is consistently side-tracked by bad decisions and the chip on her shoulder courtesy of her grossly judgmental sister Polly. Dern gives a marvellous performance walking this tightrope of a character. When tragedy strikes – and it does since we’re dealing with a grounded realistic world – you really feel sorry for Wilson, Pippi and the others. That these absurd and complicated characters face such real consequences creates such a fascinating and unique tone for the film.
Wilson is a movie about the human need for connection, finding your place in the world and learning to appreciate what you have in your life before it passes you by. It sifts through a multitude of ideas and theories on how we interact with each other today within the confines of a cinematic world highly juxtaposed between quirk and realism, yet it avoids feeling overstuffed and heavy handed. Daniel Clowes and Craig Johnson prove to be a great creative team and Wilson stands as a winning first effort that’s equally hilarious as it is thematically ambitious.
Funny, touching and insightful. Woody Harrelson is in top comedic form in this tonally unique comedy with a lot on its mind.