If you’d been watching “Cheers” in the late 1980s and declared that 30 years in the future Woody Harrelson would be one of the most inspired and dependable Hollywood movie stars, you’d have raised some seriously skeptical eyebrows.
But it’s true.
Harrelson, frequently employed though perpetually underrated, continues to mix quirky indies and big blockbusters in an unpredictable way. He doesn’t always get to carry a movie, but when he does, he’s invariably the best thing about it.
Such is the case with “Wilson,” a mostly misfired character study based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World”). Harrelson plays the title character, a middle-aged oddball who describes himself as a “people person.”
The problem is, Wilson’s tendency to ignore boundaries and blurt out insulting observations makes people not want to be around his person.
Clowes’ screenplay follows Wilson as he tries to connect with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern, in good form) after 17 years. The big revelation is that Pippi gave up their child for adoption all those years ago, which leads Wilson to the creepy fantasy that once they find the now-teenage girl, they can be a family unit again.
“Skeleton Twins” director Craig Johnson leans into the cringe-worthy possibilities of Wilson’s personal style. The results are hit-and-miss, to say the least.
Clowes does have a gift for realistic dialogue that carries a sting. When Wilson and Pippi bring their daughter to visit Pippi’s sister (Cheryl Hines) at her perfect home, the sister keeps referring to the teen’s adoptive parents as the “real parents.” Pippi lacks impulse control, so pretty soon the police are called.
When the depressed daughter (Isabella Amara) has a chance to observe her biological parents on a close-up basis, she has a revelation about her own problems. “I always wondered how I got like this,” she sighs.
The movie has to walk a fine line — if Wilson and Pippi are too repellent, the audience won’t care about their story. Unfortunately, “Wilson” too frequently forgets where that line is — if anything, it makes Wilson cuter and more approachable than he should be, especially regarding his unlikely friendship with a dog-sitter (Judy Greer).
No matter how outrageous the movie pretends to be, or how often it means to shock us, there’s always something conventional about Wilson’s arc. That Woody Harrelson makes some of this bearable is a tribute to his cheerfully sincere take on a role that never seems believable.
“Wilson” (2 stars)
Woody Harrelson plays an oddball who blurts out insulting observations; no wonder he’s a loner, currently in search of his ex-wife (Laura Dern). The film, based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel, makes this all a little cuter than it should be, despite its eagerness to shock. Still, Harrelson’s cheerfully sincere approach makes some of it work.
Rating: R for language, subject matter
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Oak Tree, Pacific Place