'Wilson' Review: Woody Harrelson Nearly Saves Sentimental-Crank Cringe-Comedy

Daniel Clowes' graphic novel gets the indie-cutesy treatment – and a star who nails title character's misanthropic-prick personality

'Wilson' may be Daniel Clowes-lite, but Peter Travers says one thing saves this cringe-comedy comic adaptation – and his name is Woody Harrelson. Credit: Kimberly Simms/Twentieth Century Fox

Woody Harrelson is the life of this party, based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, the indie-comics legend whose work has inspired one film landmark in 2001's Ghost World (forget Art School Confidential). Wilson is not in that movie's league by a long shot, though you couldn't imagine a better interpreter of Clowes' world than Harrelson. That mischief in the actor's eyes keeps us intrigued by the film's title character, a neurotic grouch who rails against the Internet and other plagues of the modern age. Wilson also hates people – his main enjoyment, in fact, comes in invading their personal space and making them squirm. Only his dog, a wire fox terrier named Pepper, earns his affection. In one scene, Wilson and Pepper walk past a movie house showing Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D, a classic neorealist study of loneliness. Game recognizes game.

But Clowes, who wrote the screenplay, and director Craig Johnson, as director (following his success with The Skeleton Twins) show more affinity for anarchic humor than pathos. What sparks the plot is Wilson's reunion with his ex-wife Pippi (a stellar Laura Dern), a recovering junkie who tells him the baby he thought she aborted 17 years ago is actually alive and well and living with adoptive parents. Fatherhood wakes up feelings in Wilson that he doesn't understand, and it's a kick watching Harrelson wrestle with them. He tracks down and stalks his daughter, Claire (a most excellent Isabella Amara) – a teen whose inherited her dad's mile-wide cynical streak – and persuades her to give her long-lost biological parents a chance to explain themselves.

Disaster awaits, along with an uncomfortable tug of sentimentality. Still, a side trip to the home of Pippi's hyper-critical sister (Curb Your Enthusiasm's sass queen Cheryl Hines), allows the trio to play a pretend family in front of a hardass woman who sees through their ruse. For a brief moment, Wilson the movie becomes the serio-comic tightrope walk that Clowes intended. Missed opportunities hobble the film as a whole, but Harrelson is in there pitching his best game. That alone is a sight to see.