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How to describe Wilson? It is exactly the movie it wants to be, yet what it wants to be is so fundamentally wrong. You could say it embodies the soul of its protagonist. Wilson (played with comic gusto but little insight by Woody Harrelson) is a middle-aged, unemployed misanthrope who blames the world for his many problems, while idealizing and romanticizing his relationships with the few people who haven’t yet written him off. He is dangerously narcissistic, even unhinged, but possesses an occasionally-endearing childlike innocence. You can’t describe Wilson without contradicting yourself, and you can’t speak of his virtues without feeling like you’ve made an error in judgment.
Instead of digging into these complexities, however, the film skims the surface for cheap laughs. It’s only a slight leap forward from a movie like Bad Santa, which demands we chuckle at the lead character’s inappropriateness without considering the real and painful implications of his social terrorism. Wilson likes to say the f-word to children. He tells fat people they are fat. He gets oral sex from a prostitute and then claims to have forgotten his wallet. This in itself is not a problem, as great cinema is full of unlikeable protagonists. The problem is that when he hurts and offends people, the film sides with the offender more often than not.
In order to cultivate our sympathies, the film places Wilson in the loneliest spot imaginable. In the first scenes, he loses his father to cancer and his best friend to a spiteful wife. With no remaining tethers to the human world, he seeks out his ex-wife (Laura Dern), whom he hasn’t spoken in decades. She succumbs to Wilson’s ostensible sexual magnetism and falls into bed with him again. She tells him of a daughter given up for adoption years ago, so the reunited lovers set out to find Claire (Isabella Amara), the teenage daughter they never knew.
Guess how that goes. When they first spot Claire at a mall, some local bullies are teasing her. Empowered by his new sense of fatherhood, Wilson physically attacks one of them—a kid half his size. It’s played for laughs, even though it would be funny to no one involved. The rest of the movie kind of goes the same way. Every time Wilson seems to be winning back the affections of his ex-wife and daughter, he does something that pushes them away. The world is against him, Wilson laments, but we know the truth.
If only the film did. Instead, director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) keeps us at a distance, taking Wilson on his own terms and steadfastly refusing to view him critically. He adorns him in comically large glasses, making him into a smoothed-over cartoon caricature, turning each of his psychological dysfunctions into something more like a character quirk. He isolates him in the frame, rarely showing his body language as it relates to the other characters. This framing emphasizes Wilson as the hero of his own story without allowing his chemistry with the other characters to reveal deeper truths.
At times, Wilson even worships its protagonist as some sort of sage truth-teller whose anti-social tendencies expose our false niceties and veiled hostilities. It even gives him a happy ending, sort of. If only we could be more like Wilson, the film ultimately argues, while he proceeds to nearly ruin the lives of everyone around him. At least the filmmakers, who seem so aligned with their narcissistic protagonist, have a ready-made excuse for the poor reviews and box-office returns that are surely coming their way. It’s not Wilson’s fault. It’s the world that’s wrong.
Wilson opens Friday at E Street Cinema.