Graphic novelist Daniel Clowes specializes in a kind of cockeyed pessimism, a somber-funny worldview that acknowledges how crummy and stupid people can be, only to swing around to a kind of grudging humanism. That’s the principle at work in Wilson, directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) and adapted by Clowes from his 2010 novel. Woody Harrelson plays the title character, a loner who shares his cluttered apartment with just one other creature, a willful fox terrier named Pepper. Whenever Wilson opens his mouth, the wrong thing tumbles out–and no one wants to hear it.
But if Wilson is a royal pain, he’s also piercingly lonely. When he reestablishes contact with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), a onetime drug addict who’s struggling to straighten out, he learns that he has a daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), now a teenager. Pippi gave her up for adoption as an infant. Dazzled by this newfound fatherhood, Wilson sets out to connect with Claire. But because this is Clowesland, almost nothing goes right.
Wilson is often wryly funny, though it too often gives in to glibness. (The marvelous character actor Margo Martindale appears in a small role, but the scene, built around her character’s looks, only scores points off her.) In the end, it’s hard not to feel for Wilson as Harrelson plays him. Heavy horn-rimmed glasses frame his perpetual scowl of consternation; he’s like a bewildered thundercloud. But once in a while, when something goes right, he cracks a nutty gap-toothed smile and you see through to his soul. Hell may be other people, but they’re all we’ve got.
This appears in the April 03, 2017 issue of TIME.
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