Credit to Woody Harrelson: He shows up for Wilson, but he’s like a jockey whipping a lame horse. The movie just never quite works, even when Harrelson’s hare-brained line reads border on brilliant. Based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel set in Oakland, Wilson was originally optioned by Alexander Payne, and that’s a movie I’d still like to see. Payne is a master of the suburban sad-com, but judging by this film, director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) is not. Wilson feels like it wants to be this tragicomic portrait of an oddball noodge, but it’s so weirdly unstuck in crucial identifiers that we never get a chance to care. Imagine American Splendor with all the specifics removed.
It feels as if Wilson, and this seems true of a lot of indies, thought it could be “more universal” by withholding information. What if instead of being about Oakland, it was about everywhere?! But that’s not how human interest works. In fact it’s the opposite of how it works. You find the universal in the specific. Which is to say, it’s much easier to relate to one person if we know exactly who he is than it is to relate to some composite of 10 or a 100 people. We relate to people who tell us who they are and what their deal is, not to the ones who try to awkwardly obscure their weirdness. Everyone’s weird! Own it!
Wilson the movie changes the setting of Wilson the graphic novel, but instead of committing to the new place, it just withholds the information. It withholds so much grounding detail, in fact, that we’re alienated before we ever have a chance to give a shit. Wilson does this weird dance of deflection, where Wilson’s best friend (played by the brilliant Brett Gelman, who barely gets the chance to speak) says he’s moving to St. Louis, and then they have a whole thing about St. Louis and how it’s cheaper than wherever they live now, but without ever giving us a hint of where that might be. It was a full 40 minutes of screen time before I saw license plates that said “Minnesota.”
Likewise, Wilson likes to strike up conversations with strangers — usually people on their laptops or wearing headphones who are pointedly telegraphing their non-interest in talking to strangers — and when he does, one of his first questions is invariably “What do you do for a living?”
Which you’d think would be a good time for the movie to, you know, tell us what Wilson does for a living, or has done for a living at some point in his life, or at some point explain how he bankrolls this apparent life of leisure casually strolling about some unnamed town asking strangers about their lives. Is he on disability? Is he retired? Independently wealthy? Has he inherited money? I want to care about this guy, but knowing this affects how I feel about him, and if you can’t be bothered to just f*cking tell me, why should I care?
The entire thrust of this movie is ostensibly a character study about this man searching for purpose in life, and yet the movie offers not one solitary hint about what he has ever done for money. (Intriguingly, he has two identical copies of the same Orwell book in his bookcase, but that may have just been a production design screw-up). Wilson reconnects with an old girlfriend, played by Laura Dern, who apparently used to be a prostitute, and has a tattoo on the small of her back that says “Property of Big Dick Daddy” in Olde English lettering. Which is funny, but, like, where did these two meet? What was happening in their lives that brought them together?
If you can’t figure out an elegant way to include that information (and honestly, it wouldn’t have been that hard), you’re lost. Because now instead of a series of adventures these characters we know and understand get into, the story feels like a series of flailing attempts to make us laugh (it also leans way too hard on the humor of one character suddenly getting shrill and manic). I laughed quite a few times, but a chuckle isn’t worth it if the audience walks out before the next joke. And if staying until the end of Wilson wasn’t my job, I might not have. Wilson does a lot of the normally hard stuff right — acting, wordplay, comedic timing — but it fails at the basics — when, where, why, what the hell does this guy do all day. You can’t draw people in when you’re so busy deflecting.