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Woody Harrelson’s a well-meaning, slow learning jerk in Wilson

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Woody Harrelson’s a well-meaning, slow learning jerk in Wilson

How many times do you have to approach a stranger, get in their face, and possibly even insult them, before you learn to alter your behavior?

In the case of the titular character played by Woody Harrelson in Wilson, the answer is: “your entire life until you are in your mid-50s and your neighbors start beating the living crap out of you to make you shut up.”

Based on the episodic graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), Wilson is a black comedy with a few rays of sunshine breaking through here and there. Wilson, the guy, can be an unbearable prick, and is astonishingly immature for his age, but he’s often funny, occasionally smart–and his dog, Pepper, likes him. We meet him in full midlife crisis: His father dies without any parting remembrance, so he decides to excavate his past.

This, as a narrative construct, is often useful. However, if you tried it in “real” life, it would probably turn out badly. (Jim Jarmusch played with this idea in the more nuanced Broken Flowers.) The most entertaining idea behind Wilson is how digging into his past turns into an almost complete disaster.

First, he tracks down his ex-wife Pippi, played by Laura Dern as a basically sweet, somewhat daffy soul who’s made a lot of terrible life choices and lived through a lot of hard years. (She’s learned slightly more than her ex has. Slightly.) With characteristic charm, Wilson compliments her by saying he thought she would have looked so, so much worse. Then Pippi informs him he has a daughter, who was given up for adoption right after she was born.

“I’m a father!” Wilson exclaims, as if he just guided his partner through birth. He has the terrible idea of hiring a private investigator, contacting his 17-year-old daughter and trying to establish a “family” relationship with the kid, named Claire (Isabella Amara, alternately surly and desperate), and Pippi.

The fact that Wilson does this without going through Claire’s legal parents leads to a turn in the plot you won’t see coming, and I won’t spoil. But it’s hilarious, and has an interesting effect on Wilson’s character.

As Wilson, Harrelson goes big–there’s no underplaying here. It works, mostly. Dern also goes big, as does Cheryl Hines as her monstrously cruel sister. Judy Greer, as the woman who takes care of Wilson’s dog when he goes on his various adventures, is the most likable character–almost too nice for this collection of weirdos.

The biggest problem with the film is tone, and how it shifts awkwardly from scene to scene. There’s a narrative arc, sort of, but the film mostly just drifts from incident to incident. It’s not fatal to enjoying Wilson, however, because enough of the incidents are cringe-inducingly funny.

Wilson, directed by Craig Johnson, starring Woody Harrelson, Fox Searchlight Pictures

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