Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes, the film centers on an eccentric, curmudgeonly and filter-less odd duck named Wilson (Woody Harrelson), who lives alone, says whatever he thinks, and whose only friend is his beloved dog. Spurred by the death of his father and the realization that he lacks closeness in his life, Wilson decides to track down his estranged ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), much to her initial chagrin. Their unexpected (for her) reunion leads to a shocking revelation: he learns he’s also a father. Sort of. The baby he thought Pippi had aborted years earlier had been, instead, put up for adoption so, despite lacking in decorum and social skills, Wilson decides to track down the now-teenager (Isabella Amara) in the hopes of forging some kind of bizarre pseudo-family.
What unfolds is part road trip, part family drama (in every sense of the word) and part character study of a largely unlikeable guy who’s going through an existential crisis that makes him behave even more erratically than usual. But the problem is that his behavior is so uncomfortably unpleasant at times that it’s hard to empathize with his plight. He’s pushy and caustic, and every time there’s a glimmer of heart, it’s almost immediately overshadowed by him reverting to being a jerk. I was never sure whether the audience is supposed to like him, hate him, pity him or find him funny... or, I guess, feel some combination therein.
Narratively, the film doesn’t fare too much better. It starts off strong, but falls apart in its second half – once Wilson and Pippi find their daughter, it feels a bit like the filmmakers weren’t sure what to do with them all, or whether the story should draw to a heartwarming or pessimistic close. So it meanders all over the map. A stretch set in a prison feels dropped in from a completely different movie.
While Harrelson is good (if hard to read and tough to like), Dern seems miscast as a wild-child former drug addict, and she engages in some cringe-worthy scenery chewing more than once. Some of the film’s strongest performances actually come from its supporting players, including Margo Martindale (as a would-be date for Wilson), Cheryl Hines (as Pippi’s successful sister) and Judy Greer (as the doggie-daycare worker who understands Wilson best). All are fabulous, and all three contribute to some of Wilson’s strongest threads, easily outshining their co-stars.
In the end, as an antihero, Wilson doesn’t work. And, as a movie about an antihero, Wilson doesn’t quite hit the mark, either.