Director Craig Johnson’s Wilson is based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (with Clowes himself writing the screenplay). Clowes is the author of Ghost World, which was filmed with spectacular success by Terry Zwigoff in 2001. The liberating, freewheeling unpredictability of Ghost World, unfortunately, is what’s missing from Wilson.
Not that there isn’t some cranky fun along the way. Like Ghost World, Wilson is about a grumpy, disaffected loner, the difference being that, instead of a snarky teenage girl, the eponymous antihero of Wilson is a middle-aged divorced curmudgeon (Woody Harrelson). Wilson (we never know if that’s his first or last name) lives in a grungy apartment with his dog and thousands of paperback books, and he’s the sort of rambling misanthrope who accosts strangers with his unfiltered tirades against the universe. He rages against the world but can’t help trying to connect with it; he tries to connect but can’t help driving it away.
When his only friend moves away and his father dies, Wilson feels more isolated than ever. A chance meeting with a woman in a pet store parking lot (the always welcome Margo Martindale) leads to a sort-of date. Wilson’s lack of filter sinks the occasion, but not before the woman uses her smartphone to help him locate his ex-sister-in-law Polly (Cheryl Hines), and through her his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), who he says left him 17 years ago, got an abortion and descended into drug abuse and God knows what else.
Now Pippi, looking pretty bedraggled (Dern’s lack of star vanity proving commendable), is a steakhouse waitress trying to rebuild her life. Wilson is the last person she expects (or wants) to see, partly because she’s still a pushover for his peculiar brand of backhanded flattery. After a round of reunion sex, she delivers a revelation: She didn’t get an abortion; she had the baby and put it up for adoption.
Hiring a detective, Wilson identifies his biological daughter; her name is Claire (Isabella Amara), she lives with her well-to-do adoptive family and, the detective volunteers, “could afford to lose a few pounds.” (One of the movie’s nagging but oddly endearing gaps is that it never explains how Wilson can afford even this seedy gumshoe, much less how he pays rent or buys dog food.)
Being a “father” is joyous news to Wilson, and he drags the leery Pippi along for an impromptu family reunion at a mall, where they learn that Claire is as much a misfit and outcast as they ever were. (Looking at Wilson, Claire mutters, “I always wondered how I got this way.”) This motley clan descends on Pippi’s sister Polly, and the visit leads—alas, too predictably—to disaster, and prison for Wilson as a kidnapper.
Johnson fails to smooth out the comic-strip clumps in Clowes’ script, and the movie’s last act feels rushed and perfunctory as it drags in an unlikely match for Wilson in the person of his erstwhile dog-sitter (Judy Greer). Still, all of the calculated quirks, and Harrelson’s slovenly charm, hold our interest against all odds.