By Pamela Zoslov
Dan Clowes’ Wilson is the kind of character that has long excited the imaginations of novelists, indie filmmakers and cartoonists like Clowes: a misanthropic loser who nonetheless feels superior to everyone else, and who spouts his cynical existential philosophy everywhere he goes. The type appeared in examples as diverse as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, in the mumblecore movie Greenberg, and in the American Splendor of Cleveland’s Harvey Pekar.
Wilson first appeared in an illustrated book (Clowes hates the term “graphic novel”) in 2010 consisting of one-page stories starring the bespectacled (like the artist), balding (ditto) Wilson, a well-read, aimless son of a college professor who finds himself alone after his father dies and his friends move away. The book elliptically tells the story of how Wilson finds his ex-wife, Pippi, and learns that she gave up their baby daughter for adoption. Suddenly hungry for familial connection, Wilson insists that Pippi accompany him on a journey to reconnect with the teenage daughter he didn’t know he had, who’s now being raised in the suburbs by a wealthy family.
It’s an adventure fueled by extremely poor judgment, characteristic of Wilson, who imposes his unfiltered opinions on everyone he meets — a man working on his laptop in a coffee shop, a bus passenger who has the misfortune to be seated near him, a woman on the street who stops to pet Wilson’s dog. He’s an amusingly unreliable narrator, claiming “I’m a people person” while regularly insulting random strangers. “Modern civilization is a scam,” says Wilson, who hates, among other things: cell phones, computers, careers, rich people, Republicans, contemporary pop music, the suburbs. One suspects Wilson is a mouthpiece for some of the darker views of his creator, who came up with the character while sitting beside his dying father’s hospital bed.
Clowes has fleshed out Wilson and his world for the film Wilson, which stars Woody Harrelson, who perfectly embodies the character’s combination of idiocy and wisdom. Clowes’ comic used the unusual device of varying his drawing style, so that Wilson is on one page a cartoonish, big-nosed short guy, on another page drawn more realistically. Harrelson humanizes Wilson, making him surprisingly sympathetic despite his often appalling behavior. His personality is so perversely compelling we don’t bother even to wonder how the guy makes a living.
Clowes has written several screenplays, including adaptations of his Ghost World and Art School Confidential, and is fairly skilled at adding action and dimension to his deadpan comics. In the Wilson book, Pippi, the ex-wife who fell into drugs and prostitution, is a blank, doughy blond who almost never speaks. In the movie, she’s brought to life by the superb, emotionally vivid Laura Dern.
Wilson tracks down Pippi and enlists her in stalking, then befriending their daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), a mopey teenager in dark clothes who’s harassed by schoolmates for being overweight. Wilson insists that the newly pasted-together family pay a visit to the home of Pippi’s prosperous sister and brother-in-law (Cheryl Hines and Bill McCallum). The stopover, complete with a tense dinner scene, ends predictably in disaster. The chaotic family visit, a scenario familiar from countless movies, demonstrates a certain lack of narrative imagination. And, as might be expected in a comic-book adaptation, characters are a bit schematic. Some are introduced only to quickly disappear, like Mary Jane Rajskub and Brett Gelman as the couple who are Wilson’s only friends.
The movie, directed by Craig Johnson, has much in common with the films of Todd Solondz (for whose Happiness Clowes designed the poster), except that unlike the pessimistic Solondz, Clowes allows rays of sunlight to penetrate. He sends Wilson on a path of suffering (hard time in prison), betrayal and redemption of sorts, along with a relationship with Shelly (Judy Greer), the dog sitter who has looked after Wilson’s adorable fox terrier. Clowes is a humanist at heart, and wise enough to give Wilson a kind of happy ending, one that’s earned and grounded in the film’s reality. Grade: B