Wilson picks up a copy of “Why Golf Matters” while riffling through a bookshelf in the house of his former in-laws.
Perplexed, he quips, “I feel like I’m doing field work among the natives.”
Such is the fate of this oddball outcast, who has made it to middle age unable to connect with people, completely removed from the realities of his Minnesota surroundings.
The drifting character study “Wilson,” based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World”), follows the profane recluse as he attempts to reach out to anybody who will listen. The result is an uneven, often aggressively unlikable tale of awkward folks making rotten decisions.
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Sporting thick black glasses and a graying beard, Wilson (a dedicated Woody Harrelson) resides above a karate dojo in a gentrified neighborhood. His place is filled with vinyl albums and videotapes. His only companion is a beloved wire fox terrier.
Desperate to bond, Wilson often starts up intrusive conversations. He sits right next to the only other person on a commuter train. Or the lone customer at a restaurant. Or the sole occupant at a bank of urinals.
This approach never quite works like he plans.
“Modern civilization is a scam,” he declares, droning on about the evils of suburbia, technology and/or privilege.
But the death of his father prompts Wilson to emerge from his uncomfortable comfort zone and hunt down ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), who left him for a life of drug abuse and hooking. Through her, Wilson discovers he actually has a teenage daughter (Isabella Amara) given up for adoption.
A connection at last?
Directed by Craig Johnson (who helmed the superior “The Skeleton Twins”) and written by Clowes, “Wilson” epitomizes the type of gruff indie that hipster critics might champion but traditional audiences find unbearable. The Sundance effort isn’t funny enough to qualify as a comedy and too misanthropic to warrant our empathy.
Harrelson and the always watchable Dern fight valiantly to hold our attention. And they often do because they unearth the reality amid the loneliness and misery. But what’s “real” isn’t necessarily interesting.
Clowes’ scrutiny of sour outcasts sparkled in “Ghost World.” But that 2001 Oscar nominee (for screenwriting) thrived because its central characters were talented yet misunderstood. We cared about them, admired them. Not so with Wilson. The man doesn’t serve any function. (How does he earn a living, by the way?) He’s simply a chronic complainer. More like an internet troll than an individualist.
His only relationship that offers any dramatic weight is with his daughter, Claire, who looks like a dumpier version of Thora Birch’s emo-styled Enid from “Ghost World.” He battles so hard to get this withdrawn, phone-addicted high-schooler to take notice of him that we can’t help but hope the union flourishes.
Perhaps the most fun that can be extracted from this downer project is to create a drinking game: Swig whenever another character says “Wilson.” For a stretch, that seems to happen in every sentence, as if we need to constantly be reminded what movie we’re watching.
Of course, that’s exactly the type of game Wilson himself would hate.
(At Glenwood Arts, Studio 28, Tivoli.)
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 1:34.