Cousin Franz: Considering the style and content of his work, it is actually impressive that iconic graphic artist Daniel Clowes has seen his drawings adapted to live-action so many times… in a relative manner of speaking: three times may not seem much, but where are the Peter Bagge comedies, the Charles Burns sci-fi epics, the “Locas” HBO show? Terry Zwigoff directed Scarlett Johansson, Thora Birch, and Steve Buscemi in the cult classic adaptation of Clowes’ graphic novel “Ghost World.”
Less successful was a follow-up, “Art School Confidential,” that contorted a couple of satirical pages from Clowes’ long-running anthology “Eightball” into, of all things, a murder mystery.
Zwigoff jumped ship before the even LESS successful “Wilson,” directed by Craig Johnson, and based on Clowes’ first non-serialized graphic novel. The hilarious, weirdly moving novel follows a deeply misanthropic mess of a man (a loser like H. T. Webster’s Caspar Milquetoast, but, unlike that gentleman, too smug to be aware of his loserdom.) The structure, familiar to fans of Clowes’ “Eightball,” is that of one-page jokes in diverse, parodic styles. Typically, Wilson will state some lofty, noble ideal in the earlier panels, with him as the last guardian of truth, morality, and virtue – then he will try to push his sermons on unsuspecting folk – and finally, when they don’t bow with admiration before his unalloyed wisdom, Wilson reveals himself to be the deeply selfish piece of shit we always knew him to be. It’s like –
Hank: Yeah, “Wilson” reminds me of this great quote from one of my favorite shows, “Justified.” “If you wake up in the morning, you go out on the street, and you meet an asshole? Well, it happens, you met an asshole. But if you go on throughout your day and you keep on meeting assholes, it’s because it’s YOU who is the asshole.” You don’t have to thank me for that bit of wisdom, you can thank Mr. Elmore Leonard. I hate those deluded people who can’t see the goodness in everyone who –
Cousin Franz: Alright, I’m still introducing the movie, but thanks for the interruption and the vulgar quote.
Hank: Geez, whatever, you don’t have to be an asshole about it, Cousin Franz. (What an asshole!)
Cousin Franz: The novel and the movie share a plot: the jokes “add up” to the uncomfortable story of how Wilson (Woody Harrelson) sets out to contact his ex-wife (Laura Dern), who may be crack-head prostitute – and then, even more misguidedly, sets out to contact a daughter who was given up for adoption (Isabella Amara).
The problem isn’t so much that Clowes, who wrote the script, had to soften the edges of the panels for the big screen, (although the compromised ending has 1/100th the effect of the original ending.) And the problem is not Woody Harrelson, who is hilarious and truly humanizes what was conceived as a cartoon. The problem is that by enlarging and humanizing things, we LOST the cartoon – and with it we lost “Wilson,” the cartoon-collection-as-a-novel. With that conceit gone, everything else goes too: the perfect pace of the paneled jokes gives way to “scenes” of varying lengths and speed; Clowes’ fantastic, meticulous drawings turn into unremarkable images you could find in any American indie; and Wilson stops being a universal caricature of the worst of us, to become a very specific, almost lovable kook played by Woody Harrelson – and less powerful for it. A more daring director than Craig Johnson could have approached this in a visually or formally distinctive way: (collection of comedy-sketches-as-unified-film? Chromatic or stylistic changes for different “jokes,” as in the book? ) Imagine the Alexander Payne flick that almost was! Dare to dream about Roy Andersson’s “Wilson”! Still, worth seeking out for Daniel Clowes fans, and those with a particular tolerance for aimless dark humor.
Beatricia: Unpleasant cartoons come to life? No, thanks. This is why no one is clamoring for that “Lockhorns” live-action spectacular. To think that we could have spent valuable time watching a documentary!
Tracey: A self-centered, self-satisfied, obliviously privileged white male with an embarrassing sense of humor who does all he can to ruin his daughter’s life. How is this NOT a documentary?
Hank: I couldn’t relate to this indifferent indie, and I fancy myself a good critiquer of cinema. Anyway, why was it called “Wilson” when it was about a man finding his baby girl? It should have been called “Wil-daughter!” True or not, kiddo?
Tracey: See, mom?
Beatricia: I am aware, darling. I am quite “woke.”
Grandpa Felicius: This Wilson character dispenses advice to his ex-wife: “I always told you your sister was a nightmare.”
The Ex: “Wilson, you said that about everybody!”
Wilson: “Was I wrong?”
Ha! Now there’s a fellow whose pamphlet I would be interested in examining closely!
Tracey: Ugh, how I hope “pamphlet” isn’t old-timey slang for anything gross and dangly.
Trent: It’s awesome how Wilson loves to take his dog out for a walk, and then he speaks in a ‘dog’ voice to freak out overly-friendly pet-petters.
Pug McClure: I like to pretend my poop is a Habano I’ve successfully smuggled into the country.
Pug McClure: I didn’t say that!
Pug McClure: I’m convinced that my tail is called Linda-Lou. She’s a collie that plays hard-to-get, and the closest I will ever get to feeling accepted.
Pug McClure: That’s ridiculous… I wouldn’t… I mean… In any case it wouldn’t be Linda Lou. She’s called Estelle.
Pug McClure: My vomit is mostly composed of expired lentil soup, broken halogen lamps, and geriatric diapers.
Pug McClure: STOP IT, YOU MICROCEPHALIC BUTT-HEAD!
Beatricia: Trent, darling, before you proceed with your inanity I would like to remind you that the family plan does not cover hydrophobic attacks.
Blurbarella: “It– Burns– Unalloyed– The Edges of the Panels– Its Core.– It Should Have Been– Quite the– Nightmare.– Broken– Butt– Attacks.”
3 out of 6 Cherries.