Wilson (2017) dir. Craig Johnson Rated: R image: ©2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures

Wilson (2017)
dir. Craig Johnson
Rated: R
image: ©2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures

If you watch a lot of movies, odds are you end up spending time with characters you don’t like very much. Sometimes that can lead to insight into a perspective you’ve never considered, or to experience a character’s growth as they change over the course of the movie. Other times you can perversely enjoy behavior in which you would never engage, but is cathartic to watch from a safe distance - a comfy chair in a dark room, say. Sometimes it just means you have to grind your teeth for 90 minutes as you suffer through a comedy that’s not funny featuring characters that are gratingly annoying. Such was the case for me with Wilson. I don’t always need characters to learn and grow, especially not in broad comedies. I’m as big a fan as anybody of a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, which thrived by the ethos “no hugging, no learning.” If that’s the approach, I do need the comedy to be clever, and it would be nice to not want to throttle the “hero” in every scene.

Wilson is based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel, from which he developed the screenplay. The story centers around misanthropic curmudgeon Wilson, a man who says whatever he wants to whomever he wants whenever he wants. It’s the perfect scenario for the politically incorrect variety of comedy that ceased being edgy or intelligent (or funny) sometime around the turn of this century. So, we have Wilson admonishing any number of characters to not be “a pussy.” He also sidles up to a man at the next urinal in a bathroom, even though every other one is empty, and lamely ends an exchange with him by looking down and saying “You’ve got a really nice cock, though.” The best these jokes could do was illicit a strained chuckle from me, and I could only muster that a few times.

What’s doubly disappointing is that Clowes was responsible for another graphic novel-turned-movie, Ghost World, which was actually clever and heartfelt. The characters in that movie were misanthropes and hopelessly sarcastic, too, but they also had a charm and wit of which Wilson is devoid.

The plot doesn’t do the groan-inducing jokes any favors. In fact, it’s barely a plot at all. Wilson becomes more depressed than usual when his only friends tell him they are moving to St. Louis. He reconnects with the one woman who ever made him happy: his ex-wife, Pipi, who left him years ago when she got pregnant. Wilson thinks Pipi got an abortion, and he laments how their lives could have been different if she had kept the baby, and they had started a family. She tells him she didn’t go through with the abortion, actually, and that she gave the baby up for adoption. Wilson is – inexplicably, considering his general demeanor – overjoyed that he is a father, and tracks down the daughter he’s never known, 17-year-old Isabella. The rest of the movie follows the trio from one improbable scenario to the next. “Zany” antics ensue.

The movie is so unfocused that this seemingly simple tale of a man building the most unlikely family unit is sidetracked when Wilson goes to prison for kidnapping Isabella because her adoptive parents have no idea where she is. This sequence at least delivered a cathartic moment when his penchant for saying whatever is on his mind gets him severely beaten by a neo-Nazi inmate. The end of Wilson is equally preposterous as Clowes gives his main character that personal growth moment in the final two minutes of the movie. It’s unbelievable, and contradicts everything that’s come before it.

With the right person in the lead role, Wilson might have been saved from itself. The usually hilarious Woody Harrelson turns in one of his worst performances as the pessimistic misanthrope. The merest hint of likability would have gone a long way to give us something to latch onto. Harrelson eschews that, and opts instead to make Wilson as grating and obnoxious as possible. At one point, the character chooses to sit right next to a fellow passenger on an otherwise empty commuter train car, then proceeds to harangue the poor man about his chosen profession. Harrelson alternately pretends to snore because the man’s description of his job is so boring, and then covers his ears and shrieks, “Why are we like this?!” The man simply stares in disbelief at Wilson, obviously wondering what he did to deserve this treatment. As the audience, we are left to wonder why the hell we’re being put through this torture, too.

Laura Dern, clearly being punished for crimes she never committed, has little to work with as Pipi. The juxtaposition of having just watched the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, in which Dern delivers a typically excellent performance, then seeing Wilson soon after is an interesting one. Dern is one of my favorite actors, but even she couldn’t overcome the source material here.

The best comedies leave you with an endorphin high from laughing so much. That’s just as true for the optimistic and silly ones as it is for the sardonic and acerbic ones. The key is to deliver consistent laughs. Wilson fails miserably in that regard. By the end, I could count the laughs on one hand, and I was far from any kind of high, endorphin induced or otherwise. I also couldn’t wait to escape Wilson and the world he inhabited.

Why it got 1 star:
- Wilson is painfully unfunny, and downright torturous to sit through. I'd be more angry about it, but I know I will have completely forgotten about it a year from now. 

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There is one thing I can unreservedly praise about Wilson: Jon Brion's excellent score. I'm a huge fan of his work, and I first took real notice of him as a film composer with his work on P.T. Anderson's Punch Drunk Love. Some of my favorite scores from Brion are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche , New York, and Magnolia

Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
All guns. No control. That's the tag line for the new action-comedy Free Fire, a British picture that opened the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, and closed the 2016 BFI London Film Festival. All I know right now is that it's set in 1978, and stars Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, and Cillian Murphy. Check back next week for my reaction.

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