Woody Harrelson’s career has been all over the map, but I found his recent performance in The Edge of Seventeen to be one of the highlights of a film that’s got a lot of things going for it. It seems like he’s trying to capture some of that same vibe in Wilson, but this time it doesn’t go so well.
Harrelson plays the eponymous Wilson, a man who hates technology and modern life, and who hates people who want to be left alone. He’s the kind of guy who’ll sit right next to you in an otherwise empty train car and strike up a conversation when you’re trying to work or sleep or listen to music. We know this because he does it repeatedly in the movie. As a result, people hate him, and his quest to interact with people leaves him without any friends.
One day, he decides to try to track down his ex-wife (Laura Dern), who left him when she was pregnant, and whom he hasn’t seen in many years. He thought she’d had an abortion, but is surprised to learn that she had the baby and gave it up for adoption. He gets what little information she has about their daughter and uses that to track her down and try to get to know her.
This is a well-made film. It looks and sounds good, and the acting is fine. It’s exactly the movie they wanted to make. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a movie that I want to watch. Wilson is such an aggressively unpleasant man that that’s what the movie becomes. It does try to become funny and genuine and sweet, but it’s too little too late, and it never abandons its abrasiveness. Whenever there’s a nice moment, it always seems to find some way to sabotage itself and remind you that there’s not much about it to like.
Then there’s the problem of the whiplash-inducing changes in his character and how he’s perceived by others, without any kind of attempt at explaining why. And as it nears the end, it feels like it’s just kind of aimlessly wandering with no sense of direction, which makes this relatively short 96-minute film feel a lot longer than it actually is. Those faults probably lie at the feet of screenwriter Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the graphic novel on which it’s based, and had previously done Ghost World and Art School Confidential), but it’s entirely possible that those subtleties were in the script but got lost in the direction or editing. It’s probably a combination of all of those things, but it seems like it could’ve turned out much better than it did.