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A Middle-Aged Misanthrope Reconnects With His Long Lost Daughter In 'Wilson'

Mar 24, 2017
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The angst-ridden cartoons of Daniel Clowes have been the basis of two feature films, "Ghost World" in 2001 and "Art School Confidential" in 2006. Now comes Wilson, which Clowes himself adapted from his book of comics about a middle-aged misanthrope played on-screen by Woody Harrelson. The film also stars Laura Dern. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The title character in the comedy "Wilson" is a middle-aged and unemployed malcontent who fancies he has more integrity than everyone else. Early on, he laments the loss of community and camaraderie. But when he makes small talk in a coffee shop with a distracted guy on a laptop, he quickly turns belligerent. Hey - I'm talking to you, he says then uses what linguist Geoff Nunberg calls the A-word in his book "The Ascent Of The A-Word" (ph).

Wilson's tragedy is that his compulsion to brand everyone else that word makes him an incorrigible one himself. The question about "Wilson" the movie is, will you enjoy spending time with such an abrasive protagonist? I did. I was predisposed by my love of Daniel Clowes' graphic novel, a series of one-page, old-fashioned comic strips like "Peanuts," the difference being the main character's foul temperament and language. Clowes wrote the screenplay and was smart enough to fill out the characters and provide a fairly strong narrative.

After Wilson's father dies without ever giving his son what Wilson craves - unconditional love - Wilson discovers that the child he thought his ex-wife aborted was put up for adoption. She's 16, and Wilson wants to find her. Woody Harrelson's Wilson is larger and more physically threatening than the modestly scaled anti-hero of Clowes' comic, and he bellows lines that might work better deadpan. But he's hugely entertaining. On one hand, his Wilson is so tightly wound it's a wonder he hasn't self-immolated. On the other, Harrelson finds Wilson's essential life force, his core of childish hope.

The casting stroke of genius is Laura Dern as Wilson's ex Pippi, as in Longstocking. But don't, Wilson tells someone, ever call her that. They've been apart 17 years, and Wilson is led to believe by her stuck-up sister, played by Cheryl Hines, that she's a prostitute and an addict. She was, but when Wilson meets her again, she's a server in a nice restaurant and has control over her demons, although helplessness comes off her in waves.

When she ends up sleeping beside Wilson after all that time, she's alternately wary and comfortable, as one is with any former addiction, as her relationship with him once was. In spite of her doubts, though, she finds herself succumbing to his enthusiasm when he dashes into the restaurant with a photo of their daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WILSON")

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Wilson) When are you done?

LAURA DERN: (As Pippi) Wilson - Wilson, I can't. I can't. I work tonight.

HARRELSON: (As Wilson) Well, no, no no - I got a great surprise for you.

ELIZABETH HERRON: (As Annoying Customer) Excuse me. Do you think I could get this with the aioli on the side, as I requested?

DERN: (As Pippi) Yeah. I'm so sorry. Let me take that back.

MARK BENNINGHOFFEN: (As Annoying Customer's Husband) And we still haven't seen that bruschetta.

DERN: (As Pippi) I'll get that right away.

HARRELSON: (As Wilson) No, no, no - I got a - can't wait any. I know I got...

DERN: (As Pippi) Wilson, I can't right now, please. I'll lose my job.

HARRELSON: (As Wilson) It's your daughter. Isn't she beautiful?

BENNINGHOFFEN: (As Annoying Customer's Husband) Excuse me. We have tickets to "Wicked," and we...

HARRELSON: (As Wilson) Hey, [expletive]. Shut the [expletive] up. Can't you see that this woman is having a profound moment?

EDELSTEIN: The couple's subsequent relationship with the girl, Claire, might make you squirm. Played by Isabella Amara, she's lonely and alienated. Her emo look is armor against her peers' teasing and wealthy parents' indifference. In another kind of movie, Wilson would be disappointed with his offspring. But her lack of social skills delights him. He says he once ascribed personality to nurture rather than nature. But in Clare, he sees a chip off the old block.

The director, Craig Johnson, made the melancholy 2014 brother-sister comedy "The Skeleton Twins." And he might be too much of a humanist to plumb the bleakness of Daniel Clowes' worldview. But his compassion is probably what makes the movie bearable. There's a loopy grace in how Wilson is attracted to a raging woman in a pet store and then follows her out to the parking lot and rear-ends her car to keep the relationship going. There's also a fine, sad encounter with Margo Martindale as a woman who's made sardonic peace with her loneliness. Judy Greer, often saddled with dull roles, gets a chance to be dippy and funny as the woman who minds Wilson's beloved dog. That dog humanizes him, too.

The end of "Wilson" is a little soft. But that softness is likely why this works as a movie rather than a series of acid vignettes. Wilson doesn't have any blazing insights into himself. He doesn't transform, but his world is bigger and so is his sense of connection. Maybe there's hope for a self-centered jerk like Wilson to evolve if not into a wise man then at least a holy fool.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

On Monday's show, the rise of for-profit colleges - they're supposed to offer a better way of life, but more often, they exploit the poor, women and minorities who need them most. We talk with sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of "Lower Ed." She once worked for two for-profit colleges but left after becoming disillusioned. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANDA DE LOS MUERTOS' "CUMBIA DE JACOBO")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANDA DE LOS MUERTOS' "CUMBIA DE JACOBO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.