The namesake of Wilson is the kind of guy people try to avoid on the bus, at the sidewalk cafe, or while using the adjacent urinal. Yet the makers of this deadpan comedy want us to spend 90 minutes with him.
The experience isn't painful, but it is a little frustrating. Playing the reclusive, misanthropic, yet oddly gregarious title character, Woody Harrelson is as engaging as the man's personality allows. But Wilson struggles with tone, shifting from monotonously bleak to predictably satirical to improbably sanguine.
The movie was adapted from a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, and offers another take on the premise of Ghost World, the best of the three films derived from his work: A disaffected middle-aged man bonds with an alienated teenage girl. But this time the story takes the viewpoint of the man, who lacks the winning adolescent sass of Ghost World's Enid and her pal, Rebecca. (The other1 film based on Clowes comic was 2006's Art School Confidential.)
Wilson is a lonely guy who's about to get lonelier: His dad is dying and his best friend is moving to St. Louis. (Wilson's tattered, semi-urban habitat is not identified, but the comic is set in Oakland, where Clowes lives.) Wilson will be left with just his adorable terrier, so he makes some tentative attempts to broaden his social circle. He fails, but in the process is introduced to something he's been carefully avoiding: the Internet.
Suddenly, it becomes possible to track Pippi (Laura Dern), the ex-wife who abandoned him 17 years ago. She reluctantly renews their acquaintance, and casually reveals that she didn't terminate the pregnancy that began around the time their marriage ended. Wilson, as needful of human connection as he is disdainful of it, is elated. He's a dad!
There's a complication. Claire (Isabella Amara) was put up for adoption, and Wilson has no legal right to see her. He introduces himself anyway, and the goth girl develops an affinity for the eccentric curmudgeon who says he's her father. Pippi joins in, and the three pretend to be a family. Briefly.
Things go very wrong, but then sort of right again. One reason for the turnaround is the presence of easygoing Shelly (Judy Greer), a dogsitter who later becomes a fitness instructor. That's two more jobs than are indicated for Wilson, who seems to be independently not very wealthy.
This material was more striking in its original form because Clowes took an experimental approach, dividing the story into short vignettes and varying his drawing style. The cartoonist scripted the movie, but it was directed by Craig Johnson, who previously balanced the gamy and the sweet in The Skeleton Twins. Like Wilson, that semi-tragic farce took a conventional approach to outlandish events.
"Modern civilization is a scam," announces Wilson in his opening narration, and that stance is something else this film shares with Ghost World. Yet while Wilson takes the occasional swipe at recent cultural abominations — teen pop, shops that sell nothing but multiple varieties of olive oil — it never marshals much vehemence.
Clowes' vision of an ideal world is reduced to such throwaways as the film on the marquee of the local cinema: Umberto D., a 1952 Italian neorealist drama about a solitary man who, unlike Wilson, is actually battling to survive in a hostile world. Compared to Umberto D.'s travails, Wilson's existential funk seems something of a scam.