Adapting a graphic novel into a film is a tricky business. Great dialogue and a premade screenplay are a great starting point, but the transcendence into a new art medium requires an ambassador that knows how to compromise without scorning the fandom that brought it to this point. Daniel Clowes has been around creating underground comics since the 1980s. Two of those ventures turned into film collaborations with Terry Zwigoff. Clowes’ most recent comic turned film is Wilson, which he also wrote the screenplay for. It feels that way too. His words and story dominate the screen as portrayed by Woody Harrelson. Like Clowes’ other characters, Wilson is also a social outcast. He is angry at the world, because he is let down by the way people have become so self-absorbed. Wilson’s attitude comes off as disdain, but it is rooted in a desperation to connect. This dictates how he behaves with the people he encounters, often shamelessly violating social boundaries. In this way he is like a child, which could be admirable if he didn’t come off as so obnoxious.
Wilson’s entire support structure is uprooted when his father dies and his only friend moves away. All he has is his dog who he treasures very much. This is not enough for him though so he unleashes himself on the world, hoping that somebody has the emotional availability to let him into their world. His strategy is to double down on his usual approach to engaging people when they least would like to be approached. Naturally he begins by attempting to pal around with other loners, only to find out why they are loners to begin with. In these misadventures, he discovers that his ex-wife is around rebuilding her life. Wilson is a man that lives in past sentimentalities so this is all he needs to throw him into an obsessive search. He finds Pippi (Laura Dern) still pulling her life together. She is on the upswing from a very dark chapter in her life. Dern is terrific as she usually is. Watching her play off of Harrelson is really moving at parts. She lets it be known that she never actually got the abortion that she told Wilson she got a long time ago. This is the catalyst for the rest of the film. From this point forward, Wilson will attempt to force himself into his daughter’s life with no tact whatsoever.
Craig Johnson, who directed Skeleton Twins, helmed this film. He is relatively new, but his films are always very well acted. Woody Harrelson brought a vulnerability to Wilson that gave depth and humor. Craig compiled great performances by Harrelson, Dern, and Judy Greer with Clowes’ confident dialogue and stayed out of the way for the most part. This greatly limited Wilson from becoming something better than what it turned out to be. Unlike Clowes’ collaborations with Zwigoff, who sculpted out a story with strong cinematic choices, Johnson tried to honor the subject matter by not imposing himself. Wilson’s world view is told through voice over in montage over his morning routine. All the comedy in the film is a line being delivered. In more playful hands, those jokes will arrive in an edit, a funny timed audio cue, fun with the composition, etc. It was a conservative approach and the end result turned out pretty bland. I watched the trailer afterwards and was surprised to see it was cut together with takes that didn’t make it into the film. Many shots that did make it into the film were from different takes. This clarified Johnson’s approach for me. It’s not a bad approach and has been very successful, but I haven’t seen it done well when the original subject matter was a graphic novel.
The film takes a very interesting turn when Wilson finds himself in prison. Suddenly Wilson is thrust into a world where there is a lot of emotional availability for him but has strict boundaries. Watching Wilson navigate this by stirring up trouble with his lack of social grace and befriending loners would be a lot of fun. Why couldn’t we get here sooner? I thought. Alas, one edit later and he is the most popular guy in prison and a few edits after that and the audience is off to a new Wilson vignette.
The end is wrapped up neatly with another voiceover. Compare it to the ending of Zwigoff’s Ghost World, an earlier Clowes’ comic turned film. That ending had poetic weight to it that left people discussing the film afterwards. I remember dissecting it in a film theory class. The character of Wilson is equally compelling and as human as the leads in Ghost World, but the end of his arc falls flat because it is overstated. Daniel Clowes has more projects in the works being turned into films so let’s hope those find the balance that they deserve.
Wilson is in theaters now.