It will not likely come as any surprise that if you tell people you’re seeing a movie called Wilson, at least two-thirds of them will make a stupid joke asking whether it’s about a volleyball. Someone even made that joke as the title card came up in the screening I attended. (Some people laughed, which was an early sign that this was not a tough crowd.) Wilson does seem like kind of a stupid name for a movie, and the fact that it gets its name from the graphic novel on which it’s based isn’t much of an excuse. In most cases, naming any story after the main charter is kind of lazy. But in this case, it was absolutely the right call: Wilson is, unequivocally and entirely, about a guy named Wilson.
Everything else in the film is secondary to the consideration of the central character, but that’s not to say there’s no plot. Written by Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the graphic novel, the movie is packed with things that happen. It kicks off when Wilson’s only friend moves away and his father dies. Searching for familial connection, Wilson seeks out his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern). He is delighted to discover he has a biological daughter, whom Pippi put up for adoption, and he decides to track her down and bond with her. The film takes a variety of turns and in some ways it moves at a breakneck speed. Plot points that would have been central to a different movie are forgotten quickly in Wilson, serving as stepping stones in service of the story of one judgmental, self-centered, jackass.
Since Wilson is so focused on Wilson, the titular character (Woody Harrelson) is in every scene. The rest of the talented cast – Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub – is relegated to minor roles, usually only in a scene or two. Even Laura Dern, who plays Pippi, is largely absent from half of the movie. It’s a relief then, that Harrelson is doing good work in a slow, subtle pivot from unlikable, selfish asshole to slightly more sympathetic, very slightly less selfish asshole.
The most interesting aspect of the film is that theme of assholery and the question of sympathy – not from Wilson, but for him. I will admit to not expecting it to go that way. As someone who has had her fill of pretentious white-dude antiheroes, I spent the first third of this movie thinking to myself, “I wish I was watching a movie about a volleyball. I can’t believe I have to watch this fucking guy for an hour and a half.”
But as the film moved into its second act, I was more intrigued – and I realized I’d been duped. The first third of this story is all about making the audience see how unsympathetic Wilson is, going so far as to show his total self-involvement even at his father’s deathbed. With Pippi’s arrival in the movie, though, Wilson gets a bit more interesting. Not because he’s changed – he’s still focused on what he wants, and he mostly gets it. But seeing that he can show affection for and connection with another person adds some depth to the character.
The final third of the film takes an even more surprising turn. I won’t spoil it, but the way the plot unfolds raises questions about whether that new depth introduced in the middle of the film is enough to create sympathy for Wilson when the tides start to turn against him. Interestingly, despite that fact that Wilson seems to have changed very little over the course of the film, his losses and setbacks challenge the audience to feel for him in a way that seemed impossible early on.
Wilson is not likely to change lives any more than Wilson changes his own, but it’s doing some unusual things and asking some interesting questions. With a story like this, you can usually tell how just about every beat is going to go, but while Wilson’s/Wilson’s end destination isn’t likely to stun anyone, a few of the turns along the way are unexpected and some of the questions it raises are compelling, if low-stakes. Besides, in the end it makes for a much more engaging ride than a movie about a volleyball.