Daniel Clowes is one of those names that has an air of familiarity to it that you can’t really put your finger on. Unfortunately, in recent years, he’s primarily known as the guy that Shia Lebeouf plagiarized. When the eccentric actor made his directorial debut with an “original” short film titled HowardCantour.com, it debuted to great acclaim but was quickly defrauded as pretty direct rip-off of a Clowes comic book called Justin M. Damiano in first published in 2007. It’s sad that this is the most mainstream mention of such a great writer, whose transition to film came only at the hands of director Terry Zwigoff, who directed the only two previous legitimate Clowes adaptations: the criminally underrated Art School Confidential and the celebrated and now Criterion Collection film from sixteen years ago, Ghost World. Now, in just as small a release as both the Zwigoff films got, another of Clowes stories gets the big screen treatment in Wilson.
Lounging in the titular role is Woody Harrelson, playing a neurotic, completely filterless but overwhelmingly lonely character. Living alone with his dog Pepper, Wilson is the type of person to seek out someone trying to keep to themselves on an empty bus to talk their ear off, more often than not with totally disastrous results. After the death of his father, Wilson decides that he needs to reclaim things in his life to make it have more meaning. To do this, he searches to reconnect with his ex-wife Pippy (Laura Dern), a fractured woman who’s temper and sobriety is perpetually on crumbling ground. During the renewal of their relationship, Libby lets it slip that she gave birth to Wilson’s child but put the baby up for adoption. Now, with a new crusade, Wilson and Libby decide to track down their adopted child in hopes of some sort of closure.
The script for this film, written by Clowes himself, is line after line of comedy gold. Harrelson embraces the character of Wilson thoroughly, delivering everything with a knowledgeable relish but it’s in the more emotional beats that we see that there is another side to this coin as he wears everything in his mind right out on his sleeve. Adding that much more to Harrelson’s performance is Laura Dern, a long underappreciated actress. In embodying the role of Pippy, Dern slays the shamelessly forward conversation and makes no attempt to hide Pippy’s damage, which makes her life seem like it’s teetering on the edge of oblivion. Both of these odd souls may be good for each other… or they may be enabling each other in ways that are detrimental to their adult growth.
I think the most complicated thing about Wilson, both in writing and direction, is making the character likable enough to root for, especially being that he’s a modern societal curmudgeon that speaks his discontent with a smile. We don’t ever want to be Wilson or even close to who he is but Clowes and director Craig Johnson make his journey really compelling. For Johnson, this isn’t the first damaged character study he’s made, as he astounded me with the Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig film The Skeleton Twins, a film that showcased a new voice in quirky comedies. Wilson won’t hit a broad audience but will resonate those in the know on Daniel Clowe’s work and indie comedies in general. Plus, I think we all have a love for the goofier side of one of the greatest known potheads in Hollywood, Woody Harrelson. 4.5/5