Harrelson shines in a comedy of two halves
So what’s wrong with Wilson?
It all rather depends on whether you’re talking about the man or the film. The film was first shown at Sundance at the start of the year and now comes to London, a week in advance of its UK cinema release. Yet, along the way, it’s attracted some surprisingly tepid reviews. As for the man …..
Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is his own worst enemy, a lonely misanthrope who desperately wants to be loved and connect with those around him, but also has the unerring ability to say the first thing that comes into his head, no matter how tactless or inappropriate. He’s insensitive to the needs of others, particularly when it comes to personal space: it’s not that he doesn’t respect it, he completely denies it, and that puts him even more at odds with others, given our preoccupation with mobile phones and computers. Although there are moments when you think he has point.
What makes him funny is that he actually comes out with the things we’ve probably all thought at some point – usually out of frustration or irritation – but never dared say because it would offend. But he says them – and loudly. A woman on the street makes a huge fuss of his dog, talking to it as if it were a baby. So Wilson replies in a high pitched, childish voice, pretending to be the dog. She’s not impressed.
When his father dies, he reaches a turning point. His best and only friend has moved away – something he takes personally – so he looks up an old school friend who turns out to hate the world even more than he does. His ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern) is his next target – they’ve been separated for 17 years and have a very chequered history – and he’s been a father for years and never knew. She had their daughter adopted and now she’s a teenager. It’s the chance he’s been looking for and one that he grasps with both hands, but his efforts to build a relationship with both ex and daughter are predictably clumsy and, ultimately, a disaster.
So what’s wrong with the film? It certainly doesn’t fall down on the acting front, with Harrelson re-visiting some of his earlier comedy roles in generating the laughs but also giving us a deeper character study. He’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t want sitting next to you on the bus: he always seeks out somebody to sit next to, even if there are rows and rows of empty seats. You’re happy watching him on the screen and laughing at him, but would you want to know him? Probably not. He’d drive you nuts. Laura Dern also plays wonderfully against type as his ex, a tattooed waitress who’s a little rough around the edges and isn’t averse to bashing him over the head with her bag when his behavior becomes too much.
The problem with the film comes just over half way through, when Wilson ends up in prison. At this point, the film starts a downhill slide because it’s all-too-obvious what’s going to happen and the resulting shift in tone is less than credible. That downward trajectory continues after his release, with a new relationship that doesn’t ring true either. It’s almost as if two films have been cobbled together in an effort to make one. A mis-matched one.
That said, Harrelson fans won’t be disappointed. It’s a showcase for his comic talents and a reminder of how his on-screen presence can simply sparkle. But, while he more than does justice to his character, the film doesn’t do justice to him.
Wilson is screened at Sundance London on Saturday, 3 June and released in cinemas on Friday, 9 June.