The very concept of Wilson on paper: the director of The Skeleton Twins, Craig Johnson, partnering up with Daniel Clowes, the mastermind behind Ghost World, to make yet another off-beat indie dramedy, is pretty much a Sundance wet-dream waiting to happen.
And while the final result isn’t quite the esteemed cult classic existing fans of the pair may well be hoping for, what it is is an incredibly solid, well-acted and surprisingly heartfelt look at both honesty and loneliness. A more hard-talking, and slightly more meandering take on Clowes’ usual material, but with the necessary warmth and depth that Johnson made his name mastering.
It should also come as no real surprise that Wilson is predominantly a character study; after all, it’s essentially just a feature-length twist on a graphic novel that, itself was powered by little more than the observations of a crotchety old loner. And in this way, so much of the film feels so under-driven by plot that those looking for the more basic, dramatic story-arcs present in a great deal of other similar indies, will no doubt find themselves disappointed.
Clowes’ screenplay does have plenty of development sewn in as the film ticks on, but there are many, many occasions throughout that it feels more akin to a series of well stitched-together sketches and anecdotes from the eponymous character’s life. All of which land well and certainly make their comedic mark, they ultimately just all feel very single-serving.
The saving grace that brings it all together though, is indisputably Harrelson himself, not so much stepping into the shoes of Wilson, as much as becoming the very living embodiment of the character himself. A bitter, resentful, but proportionately witty old coot, who makes it his life’s mission to promote the importance of humanity, whilst still willingly making strangers devoutly uncomfortable at almost every single opportunity; it feels like a role Harrelson was very much born to play. And as expected, he turns in one of the finest and most nuanced performances of his career here.
It’s a character that could so easily become a caricature; another out-of-touch grump who gets angry at smart phones and coffee shops. But between Johnson’s occasional sentimentality, and Harrelson’s seriously sincere approach to the role, Wilson comes off as a living, breathing embodiment of what Clowes’ original work really stood for.
It may not well be the most well-paced comedy around, and some of Clowes’ more left-field plot turns come very close to derailing things in the film’s final third, but structural problems aside, Wilson is an entertaining, occasionally thoughtful and frequently charming piece of work. Fans of Harrelson will revel in seeing one of Hollywood’s most consistently great performers still at the very top of his game here, and those looking for Clowes’ usual blend of social satire will be far from disappointed.
Wilson was screened as part of the Sundance London Film Festival 2017.