Wilson is another in a long line of films devoted to making audiences fall in love for its toxic old curmudgeon of a central character.
It’s a ploy that’s worked well for the likes of St. Vincent (2014), Bad Santa 2 (2016), and Up (2009) over recent years – but here it’s something that director Craig Johnson barely pulls off.
And he only has his cast to thank for the fact he does.
Wilson’s lead Woody Harrelson is inherently likeable, and that quality is a rarity among curmudgeons on the big screen.
It’s this infectious mood that barely carries the first, worst half of the film; the half Johnson fills with cliché yet somehow convoluted narration, and uninspired visual storytelling, all for a faintly unoriginal plot setup.
When Wilson begins, its titular character (Harrelson) already knows he’s a misanthrope, which means it takes less time for him to realize he needs to change (a predictable, apparently necessary development for the genre’s characters).
Wilson’s a loser, and one gets the sense that he’s the type who would brag to those younger than him in a bar that he’s still “couch surfing”. That’s not cool. Not even from Woody Harrelson.
When Wilson’s father dies, he seeks out his ex, Pippi (Laura Dern), and then he learns they have a child (Isabella Amara).
After a swift, effective coming together of family, where Wilson and Pippi meet and spend time with their daughter Claire, logic hits the film like a brick wall. Police arrive, having been called by Claire’s adoptive parents, and take Wilson away for kidnapping. Throughout what could be called their honeymoon phase, he and Pippi had taken Claire on modest day trips and kept everyone else in the dark. What did the guy think was going to happen?
This plot turn feels like Clowes realized he’d made a massive oversight with his characters’ behaviour, and scrambled for a solution. The thing is, it doesn’t matter. It’s this latent introduction of reality that frees the film from its tired formula and transitions into its second (read: better) half.
Wilson doesn’t qualify as satire, which would’ve provided Johnson and Clowes the perfect excuse for their heavy-handedness with its theme, and for their weaker on-the-nose character moments. Luckily, by its brick wall midpoint, Wilson drops many of its dramedy tendencies and embraces what it should’ve been in the first place: pure comedy, where even clichés used as backstory shorthand are welcome to service the laughs.
I’m tempted to identify one actor as the saving grace of Wilson. But since the film has no true saving grace, I’ll call her a silver lining instead.
Judy Greer pops up again and again as Shelly, a loveable dog sitter who keeps a caring eye on Wilson. She’s also a character Johnson and Clowes don’t seem to realize is important until they need an ending. Greer handles the increased weight of the role and all the fleeting comedy that comes before it with the confidence of a veteran.
Despite all of these great individual moments, by the end of the film it’s clear that the inspired, latent plot changes have come too late — none truly have enough power to revive a film built on clichés.
Certain plot elements become clichés because they work easily and well. They work so well even the least inventive filmmakers should be able to make a decent movie. When that doesn’t happen, it’s more disappointing than usual.
Too much disappointment weighs down Wilson.
Playing at theatre near you. Rated R and 94 minutes long.