The history of cinema is filled with stories about elderly cynical individuals (who are often portrayed as a few fries short of a Happy Meal) who no longer really fit into the world, but eventually find something to connect with that gives them a new lease on life or at least makes them make peace with it. Many of them work wonderfully, be it in the positive lighthearted approach like Secondhand Lions or more seriously with Steel Magnolias, but then other films don’t work out so well. Unfortunately Wilson, opening this weekend and written by Daniel Clowes is more a part of the group that fails to hit the mark.
Based on Clowes’ 2010 graphic novel of the same name, it follows the story of the titular Wilson (played by Woody Harrelson), a late-middle aged divorcee who is lonely, overly self-absorbed, and has an obsession with the past that is less nostalgia and more a simmering anger that things are no longer as they once were.
That’s pretty much the same scenario as the film: Wilson’s one friend has decided to move away (the reason he gives is to move to an area where he can afford a house of his own, but it’s made clear that it’s mostly just to get away from Wilson). Wracked with a sense of loneliness, Wilson sets out to find his estranged ex-wife Pippi (played by Laura Dern), who had left him and had an abortion some 17 years earlier.
Wilson is the kind of fellow who, on a near empty train, sit next directly next to one of the other passengers (who are listening to their headphones) and start up a conversation about their (and his) life story. He sees one fellow working on his laptop at a coffee shop, plops down into a chair at his table and begins to talk to him, only to begin raging on the laptop’s owner when they attempt to tell him they’re busy working. In an empty restroom with only one other person using a far urinal, Wilson saddles up to them for a chat about his day. The problem is, it doesn’t come across as cute, or endearing, or even funny – he’s just sad and desperate.
After reconnecting with his ex-wife, she reveals that she hadn’t had an abortion, but rather put the child up for adoption. Wilson hires an investigator to find the whereabouts of his newly realized daughter and drags his wife along to hunt the unsuspecting teen down.
A problem with Wilson (and many of the characters in it), is that no-one ever feels particularly worthy of being cared about. In some ways it feels like a discount version of Showtime’s Shameless; in that, Frank is nearly always unredeemable, however there’s still something that engages with the audience (even if it’s just to see how low he’ll sink). In the case of Wilson, he has always been a self-centered ass, he doesn’t really change over the course of the film (for better or worse). In the end it feels like we’ve just had a slice of life of someone who we wouldn’t want to spend 90 minutes talking to, let alone paying the price of admission to watch for the same amount of time.
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