After Craig Johnson’s 2014 The Skeleton Twins, he quickly became a director to watch. His dramedy, which starred Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, featured the two long time Saturday Night Live alumni in a film that pushed them to their dramatic limits in a great way. The film was a nice surprise, and the question became what’s next for Craig Johnson? Unsurprisingly, it’s another human dramedy, this time based on a graphic novel. His new film, Wilson, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the film, and stars Woody Harrelson in the titular role of Wilson.
The film follows the misanthropic, and generally down on his luck Wilson, who who’s a condescending and unpleasant individual with few friends, and even fewer acquaintances. When his father passes away, Wilson is left with nothing, and he’s not really sure where to go. But when Wilson discovers his ex-flame, Pippi (Laura Dern), is back in town, he quickly decides to reconnect with her, and hopes to recreate their love. What Wilson finds though is more than he could have ever imagined: He’s a father of a teenage girl. The only problem is, she’s an adoptee and has a family. In the middle of a midlife crisis, Wilson forgoes all that, and decides to create his family and make it whole again, no matter the cost, and no matter who it’ll hurt.
While the premise is short, simple, and a fairly fun and human sounding story, the unfortunate truth is the film never truly comes together. Much of the film feels cold and bitter, much like Wilson himself, but not in a fun way. Instead, it often alienates the audience as it meanders back and forth, with little to no purpose, other than to watch Wilson in awkward situations in life. The real frustration lies in the fact that even though Woody Harrelson is so great in the role as Wilson, the film just doesn’t give him enough to work with. It feels like a series of vignettes that often meander along, just seeing life through the eyes of Wilson, but it never really comes together in any meaningful way. This is much like the comic, so maybe it’s done on purpose. But as a film, it’s not a fun experience, and it often pushes the audience out, leaving them nothing to latch on to.
Despite the film’s story issues, Harrelson really is fantastic as Wilson, and he really gets to shine in the role. In a lot of ways, the movie reminds me of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but as a film, with Wilson feeling much like Larry David, the social awkward, occasionally thick headed, and always awkward star of the show. That feeling almost rings too true when Curb Your Enthusiasm star Cheryl Hines actually shows up in the film as Pippi’s sister, and suddenly you’re reminded of the much superior show. That aside, Harrelson really knocks the role out of the park, giving yet another terrific performance in a long line of scene stealing roles over the last several years. As much of a jerk as Wilson may be, he’s got a bit of a boyish charm underneath, and he feels very human, thanks to Harrelson’s performance. Along with Laura Dern, they manage to make a plodding, and many times un-engaging film, feel like it’s got a life underneath.
It’s too bad that the script, which is written by the comic’s creator Daniel Clowes, just never really works. The script always feels a bit jumbled, just kinda meandering too and from, without any real impact. It never gives us enough reason to really care about Wilson, outside of Harrelson’s fantastic performance. On top of that, it tries to make us care about Wilson reconnecting with his ex, finding love, finally having a family, but they’re all so terrible to him throughout the movie, you start to wonder why even bother. Maybe that’s the key to this whole thing, is that the desperation for love creates new relationships and love you didn’t know was there, which ultimately becomes the film’s story, but the problem is that it never feels earned. Even in the end, it still leaves you feeling frustrated because it doesn’t seem to earn its ending.
The film is also too tonally uneven at times to really make any sort of impact. Where The Skeleton Twins managed to hang the balance of comedy and drama seamlessly, Wilson can’t seem to walk too far one way or the other, often times making the film feel uneven in what it wants to accomplish. It’s too bad, because every time the film seems like it might finally be finding its feet, it manages to swing too far the other way, and the film will feel off again. Many of the jokes land, but just as many don’t, and too many of the dramatic moments feel forced. Worse is that a pivotal moment in Wilson’s life in the third act is told to us in dialogue instead of shown, making it feel like an afterthought. The film’s last act is really the biggest overall problem, and it’s what really derails the overall film, making it for a frustrating experience. As wonky as the first two acts are, the film is at least many times fun, and starts to show its heart, but the third act really undoes most of the goodwill it presents. The film’s finale ultimately feels disingenuous, and almost tacked on after the rest of the events of the film.
It’s really too bad that Wilson ends up being a frustrating experience. All the right pieces are there to make a great film, but it just doesn’t seem like any of it comes together in the end. Thankfully, even with as messy as it gets, Woody Harrelson shines in the titular role, which is truly a marvel when Wilson really isn’t that great of a guy. Hopefully this is just a bump in the road for Craig Johnson, and not a sign of what’s to come, as he’s a talented director who has a very bright future ahead. Unfortunately, Wilson doesn’t quite live up to the talent he’s shown, and ends up feeling like a muddled mess.