From the start, Wilson’s got two problems it can’t possibly overcome. First, director Johnson. He’s never got a decent idea. Not with the actors, not with the composition, not with the pacing. He does seem to understand Laura Dern’s far and away the best thing in the movie, but he doesn’t address compensating for her not being around sometimes.
The second problem is lead Woody Harrelson. He’s Wilson, an old curmudgeon who loves his dog. He inserts himself into people’s personal space to ask invasive questions and just generally be a prick because he’s a white guy, so he’s always gotten away with it. Harrelson will have a comeuppance of sorts, but the film never addresses how that comeuppance affects him or how it manifests in the everyday.
Harrelson’s usually okay. He’s never good. He’s not better in the Dern scenes because Dern’s so awesome it carries over. He’s got no great third-act character arc to bring things around for the finale. Just to get it over with: the third act’s a disaster. When Wilson is good—which is before Cheryl Hines shows up as Dern’s sister in an intentionally unlikable stunt cameo—it’s good enough to make up for the clunky first act. Screenwriter Daniel Clowes, adapting his own graphic novel, stumbles through the entire first act, doing narrative pratfalls and showing off how read mediums can have superior structuring. Though Johnson’s direction is also blah.
And Harrelson’s not making it compelling.
The movie starts with Harrelson’s best friend, Brett Gelman, announcing he’s moving away. I was wondering how the movie was going to deal with Harrelson having such an obvious chemistry vacuum with Gelman’s wife, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub. But they disappear, so it doesn’t matter. Harrelson only ever has to do character development with Dern and Isabella Amara. Amara is the daughter Dern gave away for adoption. Further into the second act than it ever should, Wilson becomes about their mutated take on the nuclear family.
All three characters will have profound arcs.
The film will ignore all of them. It will vaguely acknowledge them, though the solution to all of Amara’s problems seem to just be “don’t be goth,” whereas the movie doesn’t ever get specific with Harrelson or Dern’s exact problems. Like, Harrelson’s got some definite problems at a few points in the movie, but they’re taking on his overarching character development arc in the third act, kind of invalidating the second act for the audience. We just sat through this better movie and now the worse movie tells us it was all for naught.
The copout with Amara and Dern can just be chalked up to “the mystery of women.” Trying to explain them would require adjusting the narrative distance to encompass their points of view. Not going to happen in Wilson, even though Johnson seems to be leaning into Harrelson coming off like a serial killer in the first act, stalking his prey.
The other technicals are all just okay—Frederick Elmes’s photography, and Paul Zucker’s editing. Whoever okayed Ethan Tobman’s entire production design concept should have made better decisions. Jon Brion’s music initially seems like it’s going to bring something to the film.
It does not, though no one really brings anything special except Dern, who’s so great when the film lets her be, which isn’t often.
The rest disappoints.