Film Reviews

2017 Movie Binge: Wilson Asks What Happens When a Misanthrope Suddenly Becomes an Optimist

With the end of 2017 almost here, I’m trying to catch up on some of the movies I missed throughout the year. Next up: Wilson, director Craig Johnson and Ghost World writer Daniel Clowes’ adaptation of his own graphic novel.

How does the universe respond when a misanthrope suddenly becomes an optimist?

That’s the general thrust of Wilson. After the titular character, played by Woody Harrelson, learns he has a daughter he gets a new lease on life, but from that point forward he is beset by a series of unfortunate events which threaten to test his resolve. Will he actually learn anything along the way? And was his sudden optimism actually just him choosing fantasy over reality?

All of that is only as interesting as Harrelson makes it since despite the presence of Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, and Cheryl Hines in the supporting cast this is his movie. We start and end it with him, and it is through his infrequent narration we get some of the movie’s themes spelled out for us. Luckily, Harrelson is good enough to make this watchable, but just barely. There is a meandering quality to the film’s second half as well as tonal inconsistencies (broad and dark comedy are mixed together) throughout which makes it ultimately forgettable, destined to live on as a trivia item sure to stump Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern fans when asked to name every single one of their 2017 releases (Woody’s also got Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, War for the Planet of the Apes, LBJ, and Glass Castle, Dern has The Good Time Girls, Twin Peaks; The Return, Big Little Lies, Downsizing, and The Last Jedi).

Not surprisingly since this is a Daniel Clowes property, Wilson initially comes off as a more outgoing version of Steve Buscemi’s Ghost World character. Except instead of fetishizing old blues records he rails against soul-sucking corporations and society’s tech obsession. He’s also painfully desperate to connect with people, to the point that as his cancer-stricken father lies comatose in front of him he begs him to wake up so that they might have an actual conversation, one where they do more than talk about the weather, at least once before he dies. When that fails, he approaches strangers in pet stores and on the bus to try to connect, yet every time he does the stranger inevitably retreats back to their cell phone or earphones, leading him to lament how we all escape into our little boxes these days.

So, while there’s an awful lot of “Old Man Yells at Cloud” to Wilson there’s also a real loneliness to him as well. Harrelson plays this with an infectious blend of frustration, eagerness, misanthropy and plain old grumpiness. When he reunites with his just-trying-to-finally-get-my-shit-together ex-wife (Dern) and discovers she gave up their child for adoption instead of having an abortion, as he’d assumed, he’s suddenly re-energized and more hopeful about the world. His biggest fear is dying and being forgotten, yet now he learns he has a teenage daughter out their in the world somewhere. A little part of him is going to continue on long after he’s gone.

What does one do with that kind of knowledge? Accept it and move on? Go through the formal channels to maybe see if you can meet your daughter?


Wilson simply stalks her, with his ex-wife reluctantly in tow. Except he doesn’t seem to realize or maybe can’t even admit to himself that stalking is exactly what he’s doing. The plot quickly spirals from there and Wilson ends up learning a lot about fatherhood, though not nearly as much as he thinks or quite often proudly says he has.

Of course, who cares about all of that because, honestly, the best part of Wilson is Laura Dern and Cheryl Hines as feuding sisters having a long overdue knock-down, drag-out, fight in a pristine kitchen which ends with Dern growling in almost primordial rage. This is Woody Harrelson’s movie, and he really is quite good. But it’s that one Laura Dern scene you’ll remember, which actually describes quite a bit of 2017.

Wilson is currently on HBO Now.

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