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D: Craig Johnson / 94m

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Isabella Amara, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, David Warshofsky, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Wilson (Harrelson) is a loner with a strong misanthropic streak. He’s dissatisfied by most aspects of modern day living, and feels that communication isn’t what it used to be, that people are too insular. In an effort to combat this he’ll often approach people that are on their own, and try to strike up a conversation with them (and to their obvious consternation and confusion). In the wake of his father’s death, Wilson gets in contact with his estranged wife, Pippi (Dern), and against her better judgment they take the first steps towards being a couple again. During this time, Pippi tells Wilson something that gives his life a renewed purpose: he has a daughter somewhere.

Wilson soon tracks her down. Her name is Claire (Amara), she’s seventeen-years-old, and she’s a little overwhelmed when Wilson and Pippi suddenly turn up out of the blue. They try to spend time with Claire, but it’s difficult as they want to keep Claire’s adoptive parents in the dark about it all. Eventually the three of them embark on a trip to visit Pippi’s sister, Polly (Hines), and her family. The visit doesn’t go so well, and Polly works out that Claire’s parents don’t know where she is. The police are called, and Wilson is arrested on a charge of kidnapping. He winds up in prison for nearly three years. When he gets out, he finds that people are still as insular as ever, and that his life is about to take a turn for the better – probably.

Adapted by Daniel Clowes from his own graphic novel of the same name, Wilson was meant to be director Alexander Payne’s next project after Nebraska (2013), and with that knowledge in mind it’s tempting to wonder what the movie would have been like if he’d stayed on board. It’s not that Wilson is a bad movie, but it is one that can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a relationship drama, a bittersweet comedy, or something else entirely. What it is in the end, is a movie that flits back and forth between drama and comedy, and in the process fails to do adequate justice to either of them. The drama lies somewhere in the relationship between Wilson and Pippi, and the longer we see them together the easier it is to understand why she left him in the first place. Wilson bemoans how little people communicate, but doesn’t understand that the way he does it, it isn’t always appropriate.

The comedy is almost exclusively laid at the feet of Wilson himself, with said inappropriate behaviour causing all sorts of (mostly humorous) problems. But sometimes he sounds as if he’s being belligerent instead of caustic, as if between them Clowes and director Johnson have lost something of the character’s tone in translation. Harrelson gives a good performance, offering an interpretation of Wilson that ranges from manic to brash to insensitive to contemplative and all the way back to manic. Dern is also good as Pippi, a woman with “a past” that she’s trying to overcome. There are hints that Pippi has an addictive personality, and Dern reveals this added layer to good effect throughout. But the movie as a whole doesn’t make Wilson as sympathetic a character as it needs to, and the fallout from this is that Wilson the movie becomes an exercise in watching boorish behaviour being rewarded through a series of unlikely reversals and setbacks.

Rating: 6/10 – a mixed bag approach to the material – much of it lifted wholesale from Clowes’ graphic novel – means the narrative plods along in places and gives Wilson a patchwork feel that it never overcomes; the kind of movie that may well find itself ripe for reappraisal in ten years’ time, right now it’s an unconvincing look at one man’s studied ignorance of others, and his inability to recognise his own shortcomings.

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