Fresh off a scene-stealing turn as a sarcastic yet caring high school teacher in The Edge of Seventeen, Woody Harrelson further elevates his likability quotient in Wilson.
As the titular Minneapolis misanthrope, whose insatiable quest for genuine human interaction leaves him consistently disappointed with his species, the character actor makes the most of a rare lead opportunity, earning big laughs through a stream of blunt observations that gleefully cut to the core of modern humanity.
Written by Daniel Clowes, working from his 2010 graphic novel, it’s the author’s most purely comedic script to date, one that maintains the rapid-fire humor of the comic’s single-page episodes and weaves in the brand of unflinchingly honest melancholy and heartbreak that made his Ghost World and Art School Confidential touchstones for empathetic viewers.
After opening with a handful of personal space violations and other quirky behavior that quickly establish Wilson as a cringeworthy yet lovable person largely content with his existence, our hero’s best friend Robert (Brett Gelman) announces he’s moving to St. Louis and his father dies, leaving Wilson feeling utterly alone.
Hilarious attempts at meeting women ensue, but with a flame still burning for his ex wife Pippi, he calls up his former sister-in-law Polly to inquire of Pippi’s whereabouts. Working from somewhat biased intel that has him in search of a zombie-like, drug-addled prostitute, he’s stunned to discover her in the form of a well-preserved Laura Dern and, in his own charmingly awkward way, finds out if she still has feelings for him.
Also not quite accurate is Wilson’s assumption that Pippi had an abortion when she left him, the falsehood of which sends him into a state of euphoria, leading to a terrifically uncomfortable scene where the former spouses spy on their newly-discovered daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) at a mall.
As Wilson attempts to realize his formerly long-lost dreams of having a family, the trio comfortably ease into a pleasantly offbeat rapport in which each stabilizes and jostles the newfound arrangement to various degrees. While Harrelson remains the film’s focal point, he’s refreshingly surrounded by a predominately female cast that also includes Judy Greer as Wilson’s dog-sitter Shelly, Margo Martindale as a one-and-done quasi date, Cheryl Hines as the Stepford Wife-like Polly and, last but not least, his sweet canine companion Pepper.
Director Craig Johnson makes fine use of these beloved supporting role specialists, but his restrained visual style and several poorly constructed two-shots that unduly draw one’s attention to the backs of characters’ heads feel like steps back from his 2014 breakout The Skeleton Twins. Workmanlike though approach may be, it nonetheless serves the material well and, most importantly, allows Harrelson’s zingers to flourish.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Not currently playing locally.
(Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)