“Wilson,” a dark comedy about a curmudgeonly hermit who tries to reconnect with the world, is one of those films in which the whole is not as good as the parts. There are plenty of laughs and fun characters to keep us engaged, but they don’t add up to an emotionally satisfying story.
Woody Harrelson plays Wilson, a loner who invades the personal spaces of others and offers critiques of contemporary society, whether he’s with an unsuspecting dog-walker, a train passenger, or someone using a urinal. We don’t necessarily buy that his victims would stick around long enough for him to utter more than a few syllables, but we laugh anyway as Harrelson mines these moments for all they’re worth.
Wilson’s main company is his terrier, Pepper, though the dog can’t lend enough emotional support when Wilson runs into some bad luck. First, his purported best bud, egged on by his acerbic wife (Mary Lynn Rajskub), moves away. Then Wilson’s father dies of cancer, and our hapless anti-hero decides it’s time to be part of the human race again.
The next sequences are the best part of the film, as Wilson looks up an old friend (David Warshofsky), whose gruff disposition makes Wilson seem like Elly May Clampett in comparison. Equally funny are Wilson’s encounters with a cantankerous pet-store customer (Lauren Weedman) and a horny dating prospect (Margo Martindale). The laughs continue when Wilson tracks down his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), who’s none too pleased when Wilson mentions her past crack addictions at her workplace.
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Harrelson and Dern are a hoot together, and it’s a credit to them that we believe that Wilson and Pippi could have been husband and wife. But things march toward the implausible when Pippi reveals that Wilson is actually a father, at which point he begins the search for the girl (who Pippi gave up for adoption) in a bid to give his life more meaning.
Director Craig Johnson tries to balance the biting humor with the more sentimental father-daughter story, with mixed results. The laugh-out-loud factor, not to mention Dern’s presence, begins to decrease, and Wilson’s ultimate change from a misanthrope to a happy human being doesn’t ring true.
Nevertheless, “Wilson” never gets boring, even as we scratch our heads during unconvincing set-pieces involving a prison, a reunion with a pet-sitter (Judy Greer) who seems too good to be true, and a clunky visit to his daughter’s family home. It’s hard to dislike a film in which almost every character, no matter how small, brings something to the screen, and because of that, Wilson’s world is worth inhabiting for a few hours.
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality. 1:34. Kentucky.