Broken People: A 'Wilson' Film Review
by Will Lindus
Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: Wilson is not in any way, shape, or form connected to the infamous Tom Hanks film Cast Away. Nope. Not in the slightest. I say this in anticipation of the many reviews which will likely lead with such a joke or pun. Maybe this is me getting ahead of the joke. Maybe this is just me giving in to it. Either way, obvious reference acknowledged, let’s move on.
Wilson is a character study of a man who is both lonely and extroverted, a self-described people person who is quick to insert himself into a conversation, whether he be welcome or not. Woody Harrelson takes on the titular role, infusing the character with the signature blend of neurosis and charm from which Harrelson has carved his career. Wilson is the type of character who would be a welcome supporting character in a more traditional comedy, a quirky type with serious boundary issues, ready to annoy the protagonist at a moment’s notice. Here, though, Wilson IS the protagonist, on a journey of his own to reconnect with his ex-wife (Laura Dern) and the child he never knew he had (Isabella Amara).
When Wilson works best, it is when setting up and elaborating on the relationship between these characters. Harrelson’s obnoxious charisma resonates perfectly with Dern, who plays Wilson’s ex-wife Pippi as a recovering drug addict, train wreck of a human being who seems to constantly teeter on the brink of succumbing to former destructive behaviors. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Dern’s performance is exquisite; more of a revelation is Isabella Amara, who plays Wilson and Pippi’s estranged teenaged daughter Claire with acidic wit. Simply put, these broken characters work extraordinarily well when contrasted against each other.
Unfortunately, not enough time is spent with the trio for a satisfactory payoff. Large chunks of the first act are composed of Wilson bouncing from one inconsequential supporting cast member to the next, with stingy servings of resolution. On multiple occasions, a character is introduced for a short scene, one whom you would expect to see again based on their significance within that scene. But, no, they disappear into the abyss of this film’s clunky narrative structure. Of particular note is the criminally underrated Brett Gelman, who shows up in a scene indicating that he is Wilson’s best friend… and that’s it. No more Gelman, no more best friend, no resolution to this awkwardly shoehorned subplot.
The squandered potential of this cast and these characters is the most frustrating aspect of Wilson. Here you have the perfectly solid set-up for an unconventional tale about an unconventional family stitched together from a bond stronger than blood: need. The need for an outsider to find solace in strength in other outsiders, to find comfort in shared discomfort. Wilson doesn’t understand the strength of its own narrative, taking too long to build up to the interesting stuff and quickly abandoning it to pursue less interesting subject. Based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also provided the screenplay adaptation for indie-darling Ghost World), the story for Wilson works well on page but doesn’t work nearly as well when expanded for screen.
Bottom Line: The sincerity with which Harrelson, Dern, and Amara bring to their oddball characters is heartfelt. Despite its narrative shortcomings, filmgoers who appreciate character-intensive cinema may find some redeeming value at the core of Wilson.
2.5 out of 5 Bear Paws