That guy you met on Match.com who announces straight off that you’re not his heart’s desire, but goes rattling on about his own relationship issues? The dude who sits next to you in an empty bus, asks your religion and explains why that’s not the best choice? The odd duck who takes the urinal beside yours in a deserted restroom because he has inquiries about fatherhood you might be able to answer?
That’s Wilson, the sort of verbose, emotionally deluded guy who you’d welcome only if the alternatives were snuggling up with Mike Tyson or Courtney Love. Yet while he’s awkward and prickly, he’s also genial.
He’s the strangely likable goofus portrayed by Woody Harrelson in “Wilson,” a peculiar delight inspired by a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. It’s full of brilliant lines, astute observations and aptly chosen locations around the Twin Cities. It manages to be consistently funny as well as sometimes moving. As an agreeable neurotic, Harrelson once again demonstrates why he can play psychos and serial killers in a sympathetic way that makes us feel we’re in buddy-buddy good company.
Clowes’ earlier books produced the snarky, stiletto-sharp farces “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential.” But this time Clowes’ screenplay is not his usual basket of snark. It’s a surprisingly good-humored tragicomedy about family dysfunction. The Freud of cartoonists, Clowes understands the psychological underpinnings of behavior and fills his main character with emotional struggles and midlife immaturity.
Destiny has not sent many soul mates into Wilson’s life, and the few he did find are becoming memories. His wife, Pippi (Laura Dern in an unfussy, excellent performance), divorced him almost two decades earlier. His father is hospitalized and rapidly retreating from life. Even his dog seems as happy in the arms of a pet sitter as under his master’s care. You quickly understand why Wilson named his beloved pet after his long-gone ex, and why he worries about losing the terrier, too.
His last shot at human contact seems to arrive when he learns that Pippi gave birth in secret soon after their divorce, putting their baby girl up for adoption. That daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), is now a teen whose affluent but remote parents have given her a crate full of problems all her own.
Excited, Wilson tries to pull the trio together as an insta-family, with let’s-have-fun outings to a toddler railroad ride and a shopping mall, where school bullies mock the heavy-set girl. Wilson tries to talk her through her sadness, little realizing that it’s best not to expound on weight issues with the term “hippo.” He’s got a lot of learning to do, and “Wilson” becomes an adult coming-of-age comedy. Things don’t run smoothly, unless you regard a lengthy stretch in prison as a lucky break. It’s not a spoiler to announce that there’s a cheerful ending, since the curious path that carries the story there is so deliciously absurd.
Director Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”) gets assured work from his stars and a shining supporting cast including Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines and Margo Martindale all adding shades that highlight their eccentricities. The creative team has really made something quite special here, an actors’ showcase that is also a sharply focused narrative.
It should be noted that Minnesota-filmed movies with a significant cast and crew appear so seldom these days that when one does, it might be tempting to go all gushy in its evaluation. But the fact is, I think this is one of the most original, entertaining and downright charming films made in ages. It’s not a case of watching the film through hometown goggles. It’s just that charming.