'Wilson' Review: Only Woody Harrelson can make a sad pessimist surprisingly likeable

We all know someone like the Wilson in Wilson. Maybe not by name, but everyone has some iteration of the time some strange guy sat next to you on the bus — or maybe at your table while your sipping a coffee — rambling on about their own existential dread, and whether they're cognizant of it or not, really getting into your personal space. You don't necessarily like this person. 

So it's a minor miracle that the titular character of Wilson is surprisingly likeable, though that's thanks in no small part to the work of Woody Harrelson. Harrelson's Wilson is the obvious bright spot of the film, though it suffers from something outside of the actor's control: a lack of cohesive storytelling. 

Wilson is based off the graphic novel of the same name from Daniel Clowes, and the graphic novel is less of a narrative story of the character and more a set of one-page gag strips involving him. You can see why this would be a hit in the gag strip form; Wilson — in both the comic and the film — is a bitter misanthrope who hates just about everything outside of his dog, Polly. Throwing him into a plethora of weird situations, including intimate urinal talks, the thrills of people greeting Wilson's dog instead of him and a stint in prison, is undeniably funny. 

And, here's Wilson on a playground swing!Fox Searchlight

This just doesn't really work as a movie — though Wilson certainly tries. It gives the character a clear purpose: 17 years after splitting up with his ex-wife Pippi, played by Laura Dern, he reunites with her and discovers that she never had an abortion at the end of their marriage, she ended up giving up their child for adoption. For Wilson, having just lost his father to cancer — and aside from his dog, one of the only people he actually liked — it's a chance to have the family he's never had. 

Unsurprisingly, it's a bit of a shit storm. Pippi's spent the good part of the past two decades dealing with her own troubling vices, including drug addiction, while their daughter Claire, played by Isabella Amara, is an outsider in high school who is fat-shamed by her awful peers. When the film isn't completely failing in its attempts to tackle the daughter's appearance — Wilson assures her Pippi "used to be a real hippo," and it's cringeworthy — it's actually rather endearing. Claire soon realizes she shares the sardonic humor of her biological father, and for a short while, they're a lovably mismatched family. 

If Wilson focused more on the dynamic between Wilson, Pippi and Claire — in turn, diverting a bit from its source material — it might've had something special. But the film takes some precipitously long pauses between that thread, such as the aforementioned prison stint, which offers little beyond a few good punchlines for Harrelson to dish out. In Wilson's 101-minute runtime, that ultimately feels like a missed opportunity. 

Fans of Harrelson, who is still one of the most versatile actors around, will still enjoy seeing him trudge through the film with some memorable surliness. He might not have been the perfect casting as the ever-pessimistic Wilson, as Slate argued back in 2015. However, without Harrelson's natural charisma — in turn, leaving Wilson much closer to the graphic novel — the character would be precipitously close to that strange guy you once encountered on the bus. 

In other words, you probably wouldn't like it. 

Wilson arrives in select U.S. theaters March 24. 

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