Everybody loves a misanthrope, right? Well, maybe not everybody, but there’s a long American tradition of giving it up for the curmudgeons and the cranks, especially when they can make us laugh. Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, George Carlin—they cut through the bullshit, they say what we’re all thinking, and don’t abide fools.
The latest crotchety sage to amble across movie screens shaking his fist at human foibles is Wilson, the title character in director Craig Johnson’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s 2010 graphic novel. As played by a game Woody Harrelson, Wilson is a sour but secretly soulful middle-aged cynic who lives alone with his terrier Pepper, surrounded by stacks of paperback books. He spends his days trying (and failing) to be avuncular to strangers in coffee shops and railing against the isolating effects of computers and cell phones.
When Wilson gets a call out of the blue informing him that his father is at death’s door, it kicks off a plot that has him reconnecting with his ex-wife (Laura Dern) and tracking down the daughter he never knew he had (Isabella Amara). Along the way, he’s revealed as someone desperate for human connection and almost charmingly naïve about the ways people actually relate.
Wilson, the book, is composed of 71 single-page scenes, many of which end on a darkly funny/angry punchline, and at its best, the movie preserves that blackout-sketch feel. What it can’t replicate—even though Clowes himself wrote the screenplay—is the variety of visual styles the graphic novel employed to communicate different moods. It’s also hard to capture the book’s emotional starkness using real, flesh-and-blood actors.
Still, Harrelson dives into the role, putting his psycho-eyed amiability to good use, creating something like the love child of R. Crumb and Larry David. If he were to see this movie, he’d like it, despite the dollops of sentiment that bubble up. And if others found it—or him—grating, so what? Most people are goddamn idiots anyway.