It’s not the biopic about the volleyball sidekick from Cast Away that we’ve all wanted, but Wilson still is full of hot air.
This character-driven comedy wallows in the middle-aged misanthropy of its title character who discovers a soft side beneath his hardened shell of resentment and hostility as he navigates a would-be heartwarming path to redemption.
We might hate to admit it, but most of us know somebody who resembles Wilson (Woody Harrelson), a neurotic loner — outspoken about his aversion to technology — whose only friends are his loyal dog and a neighbor (Brett Gelman) ready to move out of their Minnesota apartment building.
Around the same time, Wilson learns his father is dying, which sparks an effort to reconcile some personal affairs. He tries to reconnect with his estranged ex-wife (Laura Dern), a former drug addict who didn’t have an abortion 17 years ago, as Wilson had always suspected. Instead, she put their child up for adoption.
After irritating some old acquaintances, the duo embarks on a misguided attempt to reconcile with the disenfranchised teenager (Isabella Amara) and figure out whether their family would have worked after all.
Gradually, details are revealed about Wilson’s troubled past that have prompted his bitterness and cynicism. yet director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) struggles to give the material a consistent tone.
His transformation doesn’t provide the intended payoff because Wilson’s redemption is given and not earned. The strategy here is to make the protagonist excessively off-putting so the subsequent sentimentality is more impactful. But it loses touch with reality along the way.
Despite a portrayal by Harrelson that brings depth and complexity, his character doesn’t deserve sympathy. After all, he goes out of his way to make those around him, even total strangers, share in his misery. The film is hardly convincing in its attempt to pass off his behavior as stemming from some sort of extreme social awkwardness or residual trauma from failed relationships.
The screenplay by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) — adapted from his graphic novel — also offers a half-hearted exploration of arrested development and surrogate families. However, the result is neither consistently funny nor poignant.
Instead, the quirky periphery characters provides many of the scattered big laughs, while Wilson himself is more creepy than cuddly.