Friday, March 24, 2017

Wilson: Unwatchable

Wilson (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for sexuality and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

Some films are so relentlessly unpleasant, that it’s impossible to imagine what the folks involved were thinking.

Take Wilson. (Please.)

Determined to compensate for 17 years of absent fatherhood, Wilson (Woody Harrelson)
takes ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern, right) and their adopted-out daughter Claire
(Isabella Amara) to a kiddyland play-park. Interesting choice.
Is it supposed to be enlightening? Instructive? Philosophical? Emblematic of the human condition? A statement of where we are, at this point in time?

Director Craig Johnson and scripter Daniel Clowes must’ve had something high-falutin’ in mind, because the result certainly isn’t anything as basic as entertaining. Or amusing. Or witty, poignant, endearing or any of scores of other experiences we anticipate, when plonking down hard-earned cash for a night at the movies.

Ironically, I suspect that Johnson and Clowes genuinely believe that what they’ve wrought is a little bit of all those things.

Hardly. In baseball terms, Wilson is a whiffout. It’s clumsy, tedious and deadly-dull boring, with generous dollops of misanthropy, casual cruelty and contrived so-called tragedy. It is also interminable.

Honestly, I thought it’d never end. Entire generations were born, matured and died, during the time it took to endure this sad excuse for a movie.

Building a storyline around a thoroughly obnoxious curmudgeon is a delicate and precise art: On some level, we’ve gotta love the guy, or at least be amused by his antics. It’s not just a matter of screenplay finesse; the actor in question must be endearing, in spite of himself. Think Billy Bob Thornton, in Bad Santa; or Bill Murray, in St. Vincent. We forgive their mean-spirited behavior, because they’re so darn ... well ... irresistible.

Woody Harrelson’s Wilson is resistible. He’s boorish, confrontational, obnoxious, profane and spiteful, and never in a good way. He’s a neurotic loner with a deeply rooted loathing of civilized society, and a malicious craving to ruin everybody else’s day. He’s the sort of guy who, upon boarding a bus with only one other passenger, will sit right next to that innocent victim, just to annoy her.

And then, when said individual politely requests some space, Wilson reacts in high dudgeon, unable to believe the degree to which he has just been offended.

Five minutes with this guy, and we’re desperately scanning for the theater exits.

Harrelson always has had a talent for odious characters, so I suppose he deserves credit for making Wilson so thoroughly contemptible. But it could be argued — can be argued — that he succeeds too well, which is where Johnson fell down on the job. Stories of this nature inevitably are about redemption, with the grouchy protagonist finally achieving some sort of life-changing epiphany.

But no third-act revelation could compensate for spending 94 minutes with this guy.

And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Johnson and Clowes repeatedly indulge in unwarranted or blatantly false emotional contrivance. Moments after we’ve met Wilson, hating him already, he’s hit with the news that his father is at death’s door, due to stage-four cancer. Cue a typical hospital bedside scene, where Harrelson suddenly attempts to engender pity with one of those Why-couldn’t-you-have-said-you-loved-me moments.

Say what?

Harrelson doesn’t even come close to selling that scene. Heck, nobody could; we don’t know the guy yet, or the prior dynamic with his father. Nor will we.

It’s just the first of many, many equally clumsy encounters.

Wilson lives alone in an apartment he has occupied for years, surrounded by a hoarder’s stacks of books and magazines, along with dozens of crates of beer cans, bottle caps, dilapidated board games and all manner of other junk. We’ve no idea how he buys food or pays the rent; the notion of this guy having a job is inconceivable.

He mocks and taunts passersby while walking his dog — his only companion — and routinely abuses the few people willing to tolerate him. That number is dwindling: Sole friend Robert (Brent Gelman) and his wife Jodie (Mary Lynn Rajskub) announce that they’re moving to St. Louis, which probably isn’t far enough.

With nobody left to hang out with — because, you see, despite his myriad failings, Wilson is lonely, donchaknow — he decides to look up the ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), who rancorously divorced him 17 years ago, when she got pregnant and had an abortion. They’re a match made in heaven, both blessed with hot-flash tempers and a tendency to use F-bombs as adjectives.

Pippi is just getting her life back together, after a decade of drinking, drugs and prostitution. No matter: Wilson genuinely, earnestly sees nothing but an angel, when he looks into her eyes. That said, he double-takes when Pippi confesses that, well, she didn’t have an abortion after all. She gave birth to a baby girl, who subsequently was adopted.

One illegal search later, Wilson and Pippi are armed with the knowledge that their love child has blossomed into 17-year-old Claire (Isabella Amara), a high school misfit who isn’t navigating the social scene very well. They stalk her, introduce themselves, and — because this is a movie, and because Claire also is lonely — establish an uneasy relationship. Of sorts. Kinda.

Alas, the road to “family harmony” is paved with razor blades, and you can be certain of one thing in this misbegotten scenario: Nothing will work out right. Even so, the degree to which it subsequently works out wrong is quite breathtaking.

Clowes is running true to form. He’s best known as the cartoonist and graphic novelist who drew notice with the 1989-04 run of Eightball, which he famously described as “an orgy of spite, vengeance, hopelessness, despair and sexual perversion.” He’s an acquired taste, to say the least, but his work is wildly popular in certain circles, and has won numerous awards.

He collaborated with director Terry Zwigoff on big-screen adaptations of Ghost World and Art School Confidential, both of which centered around loners and social outcasts, most of whom treat each other — and everybody else — rather badly. Appreciating Clowes requires the ability to derive humor from pain; that, too, is a delicate balancing act.

Wilson is the third feature film adapted from one of Clowes’ graphic novels, and — I’m willing to bet — destined to be the least successful. The emotions here are too unnatural and irrational: blatant manipulation in service of damaged characters and Clowes’ belligerently hostile view of the universe.

He seems a good fit with Johnson, whose previous credits include the equally unpalatable True Adolescents and The Skeleton Twins.

Dern does her best with a part that veers wildly in all sorts of directions, few of which are comprehensible. Pippi craves affection and understanding even more deeply than Wilson, so in that sense she’s sympathetic, but Dern is too erratic; as with most of the characters in this story, she’s more a construct than a credible human being.

Claire seems like a nice enough young woman, if one uncertain of her destiny, but script contrivances prevent Amara from making much of an impression.

The bright spot is Judy Greer, as this saga’s sole truly gentle character: Shelly, the dog sitter who also functions as Wilson’s sympathetic confidante. Greer alone saves this film from total turkeydom; she’s warm and genuine, unlike anybody else in this mess.

The film is bookended by Wilson’s ludicrously self-serving voice-over narration, which initially informs us of the caustic bile about to spew forth, and — as the film (thank God) concludes — attempts to justify what we’ve just endured. The effort fails.

I can’t help feeling that Johnson and Clowes deliberately made this film as repugnant as possible, as some sort of challenge, and that they’ll giggle over every patron suckered into spending money to endure it.

Nice job, guys. Not.

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