Comic book author and screenwriter Daniel Clowes has a penchant for writing about characters who are deliberately antagonistic and narcissistic. This was the case for Enid, the central character in 2001’s Ghost World, adapted by and based on Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name. This is equally the case for Clowes’ titular character in his self-penned adaptation of his graphic novel, Wilson. Unlike Enid, however, whose rudeness is used as an attempt to not be close with those around her, Wilson (Woody Harrelson) desperately wants to find people to whom he can be close; unfortunately for him, his confrontational style of interaction repulses those around him.
Describing the plot of Wilson is made somewhat difficult by its fractured, episodic story structure, which jumps through individually amusing vignettes with a thin through line to connect them to a single narrative. This style of structuring is familiar to most comic strip enthusiasts, as it’s a medium which favours telling small stories in individual issues of newspapers and magazines over many months and years.
While Wilson was the first graphic novel written by Clowes not to be serialised, it still has the feel of a strip which was. Wilson learns that his father’s cancer has become terminal and that his roommates have decided to move out because they can no longer abide living with someone as toxic as him, despite him believing them to be his only friends. The sudden realisation of his impending loneliness causes Wilson to attempt to track down and reunite with his estranged wife Pippi (Laura Dern) while having random encounters with strangers along the way. During his journey, he learns that he has a daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), who is now fifteen and lives in the suburbs with her adoptive parents. Wilson locates her and attempts to start a relationship with her, dragging a reluctant Pippi along.
Films about misanthropic or curmudgeonly white men are not exactly rare in American independent cinema. After all, it is exactly this type of role that allows actors like Paul Giamatti, Tommy Lee Jones, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Wilson star Woody Harrelson to be so prolific. The sight of a grumpy man in his advancing years taking gleeful joy in being disruptive or cruel is one of the more common staples of American cinema, and while it can be passingly amusing, it can be hard work to want to stay in the company of such characters. Wilson mostly sidesteps this by making the main character’s confrontational nature part of what he thinks is essential to making pleasant conversation; he simply doesn’t know how else to interact with people.
Much like Ghost World before it, Wilson is a thesis about a profoundly lonely individual. He wants to have people around him and be loved but does not know how to change his situation. All the vignettes that arise before Pippi and Claire are introduced play out in much the same way: Wilson sits down next to someone who does not wish to be bothered and he attempts to have a conversation with them. All of these conversations end with Wilson being rejected because his conversational style makes those with whom he attempts to converse uncomfortable. Wilson’s environment is toxic, but it is not deliberately so and that is what is so pitiful about him. Wilson’s remarks and barbs might be amusing, but the situations that he creates for himself alienate him to the point of self-destruction.
Clowes’ scripts and comics do not delve into what makes people like Wilson the way they are, but through subtle asides, it is suggested that he is possibly suffering from undiagnosed depression. One particularly striking moment comes when he learns that his dog, Pepper, has died; he immediately crawls into the foetal position and sobs uncontrollably. Wilson’s closest relationship was with Pepper––and it was a relationship far more profound than the ones he shares Pippi and Claire. Pepper’s death temporarily breaks down his final barrier of cruelty. He later goes to pet a dog in the park and holds it as if Pepper has returned to him; he cries so hard that the dog’s owner quickly becomes uncomfortable. Nothing about this moment is played to be amusing, instead it reveals just how astutely far gone Wilson is, and no amount of cutting remarks can hide this. Scenes such as this one hint at what Wilson may be suffering from, but Clowes’ script leaves a more explicit diagnosis open to interpretation.
The film does not attempt to romanticize the life of someone living with Wilson’s condition––whatever that may be––but by allowing the viewer to sympathise with him, Harrelson lends Wilson a certain authenticity. Wilson does not intentionally hurt people, but his toxicity is such that he drags those around him down to his level. Pippi, for example, lived an unhappy life with Wilson, and by running away from him, she managed to evolve from an alcoholic slacker to a successful restaurant manager. Once she comes back to him, she slides back into a life of alcoholism and irresponsibility. Wilson’s clumsy, ill-advised attempt to start a relationship with Claire backslides since he does not encourage her to be her best, but instead to act more like him. When she is asked if she has any plans for college, Claire replies by saying, “Fuck no.” Wilson laughs and remarks that this sort of remark is, “classic Wilson!”
It’s only in the final act, when the narrative overplays its hand, that Wilson’s attempts to start a relationship with Claire without the permission of her foster parents lands him in jail. The honesty previously on display renders itself trite, causing the film to lose much of the credibility that the first two acts fostered. This is a shame since, during the first two acts, the whole film is dangerously close to tipping over into pointlessness, due to the choppy and fractured nature of its narrative. As finely drawn as the character of Wilson is, a character is not a movie and everything surrounding him is not nearly as interesting as he is. The final act pushes the narrative too far into saccharine territory and never recovers. Praise should go to Harrelson, as he wisely imbues Wilson with a delusional eternal, puppyish optimism; this allows even his cruelest rants to be fun and hints that Wilson is never fully aware that his personality is as corrosive as it is.
While Wilson will not be remembered as fondly as Ghost World, it is among the more successful adaptations of an independent graphic novel of the past few years. Any flaws within the narrative capsize the film in the final act, but this is not enough to spoil the preceding two acts. I would have been interested to see Clowes’ script explore more of the psychological underpinnings as to why Wilson can’t form successful relationships and what mental health issues he may be suffering from, but this isn’t a fault of the film so much as it is a personal preference. Still, it’s hard to find too much fault in a film in which, after attempting to have a heartfelt conversation about parenting with a man at a urinal, Wilson concludes by telling the man, “nice cock, by the way.”