Adapted from his own comic by Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes, Wilson follows the titular neurotic grump (Woody Harrelson) as he navigates a difficult stretch of time after reconnecting with his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern) leads to the discovery of Claire (Isabella Amara), the daughter he never knew he had, now an alienated mall goth living with her wealthy adoptive parents in picturesque suburbia.
The “crank with a heart of gold” archetype is a pretty familiar one by this stage of the game; think Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets, Bill Murray in St Vincent, Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, and now Woody Harrelson in this. Harrelson’s variation on the type is a pseudo-intellectual with poor social skills, easily irked by the vexations of the modern life, and given to lecturing hapless passers-by because, as he puts it, he’s a “people person”.
In lesser hands the character would be unbearable, and you’ll need a taste for cringe comedy to take him as presented, but Harrelson manages to make Wilson sympathetic through sheer force of will, imbuing him with enough self-awareness to mitigate his pricklier aspects. The discovery of his daughter, long thought aborted, spurs Wilson to at least try to get his act together -something that Pippi, a recovering drug addict and former sex worker, is already endeavoring to do. The most interesting stretch of the film involves them and Claire experimenting with being a family unit, hitting a cheesy amusement park and just kind of hanging out.
But this is only part of Wilson’s narrative, a fairly episodic affair that moves in fits and starts; suitable for the comic book format, perhaps, but less successful on the screen. The story take a weird left turn about halfway through when Wilson’s attempts to forge a connection with Claire have some unexpectedly dire consequences, and it never quite recovers from that.
Wilson is really a work of portraiture more than narrative, and how well that works depends on whether or not you’re sick of this kind of character, whose misanthropy and unearned narcissism can start to wear thin after a while, and whose arc curves only ever so slightly towards growth and redemption. Harrelson’s charms and the excellent supporting cast count for a lot, but in the end you find yourself wondering what the point of the exercise was.