Director: Craig Johnson
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Sandy Oian-Thomas, Shaun Brown, Judy Greer, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Laura Dern
As a Londoner there is an innate social etiquette transcribed in my DNA that I follow unquestionably. It includes rules such as: no eye-contact when riding public transport; avoid talking to strangers in any setting at all costs; keep any small talk that occurs small, sticking to inane and vapid topic, and that personal space equates to at least one seat between you and the rest of the world. It’s clear from the opening few moments that Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is clearly not a Londoner and if he were he’d easily be written off as the weirdo-who-must-be-avoided (of which there always seems to be one, no matter where you are in London – if you can’t spot one then it’s probably you…). In fact Wilson seems to transcend social niceties or euphemism; he’s actually a misanthropic, passive aggressive prick, one who is riddled from neuroses to such an extent that a 60 second conversation with him would be too long.
At least, that’s how it appears at the start but as with most of these things, there’s more going on under the surface. First and foremost, he’s lonely. His breaking with social conventions, sitting at an occupied table when the rest of the café is empty or choosing to sit next to the sleeping person on an empty train who you then wake up and bamboozle with questions, is the result of his desperate need/want for human contact. He’s trapped between a fear of commitment – caused by being abandoned by his wife Pippi (Laura Dern) 18 years ago – and an overwhelming sense of loneliness. When Wilson finds out that Pippi has returned to town he goes to find her in a desperate bid for closure. What he ends up getting is another chapter of sorts. Having believed for almost two decades that Pippi had an abortion post-leaving Wilson and pre-a failed attempt living in LA he finds out that she in fact had the child and gave it up for adoption. What follows is Wilson, and a forcibly co-opted Pippi, seeking out their teenage daughter then trying to form a connection with her. But, as Wilson is a less than conventional person, what follows is unique with a side of twisted…
The film is centred on Harrelson’s performance – in fact, it’s totally dependent on it. He’s the reason that most people would choose to see the film in the first place, let alone stay committed to it. It’s certainly something of a hard-sell, watching a middle-aged curmudgeon on his desperate search for some semblance of stability, but Harrelson manages to sell it…just. He throws all his charm at it and succeeds in making someone that should or could be an unlikeable character into someone we find ourselves being tricked into caring about. The script is loaded with great gags and the odd belly laugh, regularly straying into genuinely hilarious territory. Dern is excellent support as his estranged wife and their chemistry is immensely watchable.
It’s a shame that the film loses momentum mid-way, the gags become less frequent during some unexpected narrative twists and the charming, odd-ball tone becomes replaced with just plain odd. Whilst Harrelson is consistent, the storytelling isn’t, and when the emotional gear switches and becomes more poignant, the film lacks the depth to fully connect with the audience. After having a first act that flew by, the film gets bogged down in the second act causing the 92 minute running time to feel far longer. If you like the idea of an indie movie that is the by-product of a Venn diagram with the subheadings ‘quirky’ and ‘chaotic’ then ‘Wilson’ is the film for you. If you want to watch Woody Harrelson firing on all cylinders then you’re also the perfect audience.
Overall, the film feels like something of a missed opportunity. An opener of ‘what went well’ followed by just a bit too much ‘even better if’.