Film

Film Review: Wilson – diverting if forgettable US indie comedy-drama

Woody Harrelson plays a misanthropic middle-aged divorcee trying to reunite his fractured family in this adaptation of a Daniel Clowes graphic novel. But it doesn't linger long in the memory.

In this new US comedy-drama Woody Harrelson plays a man who has a habit of sidling up to strangers and regaling them with his views on life. Harrelson is the eponymous Wilson, a divorcee in late middle-age and one of life’s loners who shares a modest, untidy house with his terrier, the single unquestionable object of his devotion.

His encounters with the public – in hipster cafés, in amusement-park urinals, on buses – have the potential for the tartest comedy of embarrassment. But Harrelson seems incapable of inhabiting a role without adding his own dash of guileless charm and scruffy likeability, even if the part requires otherwise. On paper Wilson is the kind of man you’d instinctively edge away from – but as played by Harrelson you don’t mind the company.

Wilson is adapted from the Daniel Clowes graphic novel of the same name (Clowes is credited as screenwriter). The original work is more cruel and abrasive than this screen version: in the book Wilson’s sad-sack tendencies play out to excruciating extremes – think Mike Leigh set in the US suburbia – whereas here they’re bathed in the forgiving glow of Harrelson’s endearing performance.

Is this a bad thing? Harrelson is certainly good value as Wilson: sure, he has his misanthropic moments and his outlook on life is vinegar-sour but this grouchy front disguises a teddy-bear affability that is the heart of the film. Which is strange given the semi-tragic turn of events that the poor man has to endure over the course of 90 or so minutes.

Beginning with the death of Wilson’s father – a hospital bedside farewell that is one of the strongest scenes – the film then sees its hero reunite with his former wife, now a recovering drug addict, Pippi (Laura Dern). In reconnecting with her, he discovers that he has a teenage daughter whom Pippi gave up for adoption as a baby.

Wilson does his best to reunite this biological unit but what follows is a catalogue of blows and humiliations that he suffers with stoic fatalism. He even manages – in a plot development of Dickensian melodrama – to adjust to a spell in prison. The fact that he expects so little from life gives him an immunity from disappointments that the rest of us would find unbearable. “I never stopped loving you,” he tells Pippi. “I stopped loving you,” she deadpans, matter-of-fact. “Ouch,” Wilson says with little protest.

The mood of subdued sentimentality doesn’t feel entirely appropriate for the often bleak crises that are inflicted on Wilson.

This is all pleasantly watchable but it keeps the stakes low, and the mood of subdued sentimentality doesn’t feel entirely appropriate for the often bleak crises that are inflicted on Wilson. The one exception is Laura Dern’s magnificent performance as Pippi: she’s spiky, sardonic, violently unpredictable and bracingly bitter about the bad hand that life has dealt her. Her enraged explosion against the passive-aggressive hostility of her straight-laced sister (to whom she and Wilson take their daughter for a disastrous visit) is the film’s stand-out moment.

Mostly, though, this is a diverting if forgettable experience. “In 50 years there won’t be any trace of my existence,” says Wilson at one point, a typical sample of his homespun, agreeably crabby philosophy. Fifty years? An hour or so after the closing credits, much of this underpowered indie film was already fading from memory.

Wilson is in cinemas from June 9

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