WILSON: A New Kind Of People Person
Wilson is as gleefully profane and heart-wrenchingly tragic film, that lives up to its creator's legacy as a storyteller.
Written for the screen by Daniel Clowes and directed by The Skeleton Twins lead helmer Craig Johnson, Wilson is as gleefully profane and heart-wrenchingly tragic piece of work that fans of either of the two former Hollywood talents could hope for. Taking direct inspiration from the 2010 graphic novel of the same name, written and drawn by Clowes, Wilson feels like a more than worthy addition to the larger Clowes catalogue of works found in both comic book panels and on the silver screen – with his work on the feature film adaptations of Ghost World and Art School Confidential serving as his latest film’s immediate thematic predecessors.
In a movie that could have been more deliberately edited to suit mainstream tastes, Johnson directs Wilson with a deliberate pacing that serves to circumvent any broad comedy beats from occurring too easily. Woody Harrelson could have been made into a clown at any moment in Wilson, but Johnson‘s aims are thankfully more in line with the mundane hyper-realism long established by Clowes. Ghost World set the bar high for any subsequent theatrical adaptations of the seminal graphic novelist’s works, and Wilson gracefully manages to vault said height.
Nevertheless, Wilson frequently veers too far from the outward sympathies of a sympathetic audience in much the same way that the titular character repels his presumed companions. Clowes is known for setting his sights on several superficially polarizing personalities, and in Wilson he continues that tradition. Supporting turns from Laura Dern and Judy Greer help to alleviate some of the film’s more thorny edges from pricking the viewer too sharply, but left to his own devices, Clowes still manages to get in more than a few swipes at conventional sensibilities.
The Lonely & the Neurotic
At the heart of Wilson is a story about a lonely middle-class American man whose neuroses drive the very people that he longs to be closer to away from him. In that sense, Johnson has directed a film in the same tradition as the very best work of Woody Allen and Larry David, and Clowes by turn should be heralded as the second coming of Jerry Seinfeld. Harrelson acts as the everyman to a 21st century audience of social malcontents in much the same way that George Costanza did for a late 20th century audience in Seinfeld. Wilson even progresses in the same dramatic manner as Seinfeld, with much of the film’s script progressing to the beat of no man, resulting in a major motion picture ostensibly about nothing.
Like Ghost World and Art School Confidential, Wilson examines its characters under a microscope, and documents their every move with an exacting attention to detail that leaves nothing to the imagination. In Harrelson’s monomaniacal pursuit towards establishing a familial connection with his long-lost daughter and former lover, his actions are revealed to be both melodramatic and narcissistic. His single-minded obliviousness to the world around him results in an appropriation of the emotional well-being of the people he surrounds himself with, consequences be damned.
Sadly, none of the character flaws that run rampant and roughshod throughout Wilson are ever addressed in as satisfactory manner as might be anticipated. While working with former creative collaborator and feature film director Terry Zwigoff, Clowes managed to somehow force his characters into moments of personal reappraisal that afforded temporary glimpses towards personal growth, even if the script often left his characters in whole new states of emotional desperation. The graphic novels and comic book strips upon which those scripts are based often achieve the same ends, but with Wilson, Johnson has a harder time finding a happy ending that doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina.
Harrelson provides for a more than admirable lead performer and muse for the collective sensibilities of Johnson and Clowes, and for the most part, Wilson plays to an immediate audience of Ghost World and Art School Confidential admirers. The tragicomic sensibility previously established with Zwigoff is a perfect match for Johnson, whose sophomore outing is more or less a continuation of the same themes previously explored in his cinematic debut, The Skeleton Twins. Clowes has developed a voice for himself that is distinctly his own, making Wilson into an instantly recognizable minor theatrical work created by the iconic graphic novelist.
Wilson is definitely among the more original movies to see theatrical releases yet this year. Its vision is peculiar, its characters are individuals, and its ambition is laudable. Even when Johnson struggles to rein in some of Clowes‘ unfiltered eccentricity, Harreslon manages to make the film’s eponymous curmudgeon into an easily identifiable person whose compulsions prove analogous to the viewer’s own. Sending viewers on an insanely solipsistic journey to find universal meaning in the world, Wilson lives up to its creator’s legacy as a storyteller of unconventional sensibilities.
Despite the fact that the film’s script might have been better served under the direction of Alexander Payne – who initially bought the theatrical rights to the graphic novel – Johnson is served well as a director by working with Clowes, as the two are so obviously interested in telling the same kinds of stories. Wilson never shies away from some of the script’s more dramatic moments, and as a result, the brief bursts of comedy feel more well-earned and cathartic.
Harrelson is a real treasure in Wilson, as are Dern and Greer as his dueling love interests, and the rest of the movie serves to call attention to the detailed and exhaustive character work undertaken on the behalf of all three performers. In its slow burning quality, Wilson explodes when you least expect it, before fizzling out when you most anticipate careening towards a happy ending. There are more than a few false steps undertaken on the joint behalf of Johnson and Clowes in the making of their latest feature film, but in context, all of those small moments of potential misgivings towards Wilson fade away as the viewer gives into its slap-dash charm and confined bursts of playful antagonism.
Are you a fan of Daniel Clowes? Are you interested in seeing Wilson as the theatrical follow-up from the director of The Skeleton Twins? Tell us what you thought in the comments below!
Wilson saw released in the U.S. on March 24, 2017. For international release dates, see here.
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