Film review: Wilson, Daniel Clowes’ Graphic Novel, Deserves Better Treatment

Image courtesy Fox Searchlight.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight.

What I remember about the graphic novel Wilson by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), from which the movie Wilson is adapted by the author, is that it’s a series of humorous, life-altering moments in the life of its middle-age protagonist, played with a glorious combination of affability and vague hippie sentiment by Woody Harrelson. Wilson is just as likely to strike up an unwanted conversation on a long bus trip as he is to curse your name if he thinks you’re part of the establishment that’s keeping free thinkers like himself down. What the source material is not is a series of set-ups and punchlines, which is effectively what the film is, to its detriment.

Director Craig Johnson (True Adolescents, The Skeleton Twins) is clearly a fan of the graphic novel, but he can’t get past his desire to make it less long-form, darkly funny moments and more punchy, quotable lines, which, admittedly, Harrelson is an expert at delivering. Without the actor, this material would likely be a great deal more insufferable. When a plot does finally kick in, Wilson’s father dies, and in an attempt to reconnect with his past, he unsuccessfully attempts to meet old high school friends, whom he quickly realizes he never liked in the first place.

One of the many people he locates is his troubled ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), who confesses that the baby she was pregnant with when they split was given up for adoption (Wilson had been led to believe the pregnancy was terminated), and he immediately gets it in his head to find the now 17-year-old girl and have the three of them spend time as a family. The daughter, Claire (a nice turn by Isabella Amara) is so much of an outcast from her schoolmates and her adoptive parents that she’s fine with the idea of spending time with Wilson and Pippi, even if taking her out of school and driving around with her constitutes kidnapping. In an effort to show Pippi’s snooty sister (Cheryl Hines) that she had her life back on track, they take Claire to the sister’s house for a visit, and that’s when the charade begins to unravel, and Wilson is arrested for child endangerment, landing him in jail.

The primary plot in Wilson is probably the least interesting thing about the film. Much like the graphic novel, it’s the individual peripheral moments that shine, especially a wonderful scene in a diner between Harrelson and Margo Martindale. The conversation is so blunt and wrong that it ends up being the funniest sequence in the entire movie. Another standout performer is Judy Greer as Wilson’s dog-sitter and eventual love interest Shelly, who keeps him close after his brief stint in prison, during which Wilson does a great deal of soul searching and growing up. It may not be apparent until the end of the film, but Wilson is a coming-of-age story about a man in his 50s with no real social or practical skills outside of the gift of gab and irreverence.

Wilson has more than a handful of solid moments, but they are peppered between fairly stock observations about the way the world works, and how everybody tends to screw everybody else when given the chance. I’m not certain you can say that Wilson learns life lessons along the way, but not everybody does when they get older. Some people, including our antihero, simply fall into a pattern of living that works for them and sees them through to their final days. If you think you can handle or tolerate a film that offers no clear messages about how to improve yourself to make a better life, then Wilson might be for you.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Wilson director Craig Johnson, go to Ain’t It Cool News.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.