The beginning marks the beginning of the end: A middle-aged man rouses from sleep, about to face another day of accosting and insulting strangers. He hates people but needs them, too. His voice-over kicks in, a peroration that opens with a bid for camaraderie (“Remember when we were kids and life was all there in front of us?”) and concludes with the unassailable logic of the Holden Caulfield school of philosophy (“Civilization is a scam”). This is our introduction to Wilson, the latest iteration of the redeemed-curmudgeon comedy, and to Wilson (Woody Harrelson), whose dull-witted misanthropy, fatiguing from first minute to last, will, for some viewers, further confirm their misandry.
The film, replete with spatial and tonal incoherence, is directed by Craig Johnson (whose previous movie, 2014’s everybody-hurts-template-following The Skeleton Twins, was at least buoyed by the easy chemistry between leads Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) and scripted by Daniel Clowes, adapting his 2010 graphic novel of the same name (which I haven’t read). Google tells me that Clowes’ protagonist lives in Oakland. Movie Wilson is assigned no discernible hometown — only a quickly glimpsed Minnesota license plate provides anything like geographical coordinates — just one example of the prevailing disregard for specificity, the most basic quality required to make splenetic comic entertainments like this one work.
Why is this bearded, bespectacled man in Dockers and short-sleeve oxford shirts so angry? He is not unhappy in his job, because there is no mention of one. Could his contempt and superciliousness be rooted in his obsessive investment in pop-culture esoterica, as was the case with the cranky north-of-40 record collector played by Steve Buscemi in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), the first of Clowes’ comics to be transferred to the screen? No, for Wilson has no interests other than his dog, a wire fox terrier named Pepper, the movie’s sole source of charm.
Inevitably, his generic disgruntlement will soften: Amerindie dyspeptic-comedy formula dictates that the man who rants two times too many against the addiction to phones and the internet will, by film’s end, have a heart-stirring video chat. But on the way to this certainty, Wilson becomes a mass of straggly plot strands, instigated by the grumpy guy’s reunion with his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern, horribly misused) — a one-time addict…and maybe a sex worker? They track down the teenage girl (Isabella Amara) whom Pippi gave up for adoption. They take to the highway, Little Miss Sunshining it for a while. The path they must not veer from — “our way to being happy,” as Pippi tells Wilson — really should be the road less traveled.
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