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‘Wilson’ review: Woody Harrelson, at odds with the world

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'Wilson' review: Woody Harrelson, at odds with the world

Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern stalk their given-up-for-adoption daughter in ‘Wilson’

Have a minute?

Wilson over here would like to give you his opinions on the intrusiveness of the internet, destructive parenting styles, the psychology of pet owners and your own admittedly limited physical attractiveness.

Oh, you’re busy?

Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to talk at all. You can just sit there and listen, and listen, while Wilson expounds. In fact, he’d prefer that. He’s got a lot to say – and all the time in the world to say it.

Wilson is, pretty obviously, a pain, but “Wilson” the movie isn’t. In fact, it’s kind of low-key delightful, if you like the sort of character-driven grumpiness that’s fueled films like “Nebraska,” “About Schmidt” and “Ghost World.”

The allusions come naturally, of course; Alexander Payne, who directed “Nebraska” and “About Schmidt” had spearheaded this project, before dropping out (it’s directed by Craig Johnson, now) while the screenplay is by “Ghost World” writer Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the original graphic novel it was based on).

And like all those works, it gets an enormous amount of good humor out of observing a particularly ill-humored man.

Wilson, marvelously played by Woody Harrelson, lives in small-town Minnesota, where he has a small dog, one friend, no romantic prospects and an ex-wife he hasn’t seen in more than 15 years. Then the friend moves away. Wilson gets so desperately lonely he even bumps into a stranger’s car in a parking lot, just so he has an excuse to talk to her.

And no, she doesn’t want to date him either.

But then he gets a bit of new from his ex – she had a kid after she left him, it seems. Their kid. And although she put the girl up for adoption, their daughter’s nearby, living with her new family.

Wilson’s delighted by the news, but Wilson isn’t the sort of person who’s used to handling delight. And the unfamiliar emotion leads him to make a long series of painfully comic mistakes, the kind that lead to several beatings, an awkward moment in a men’s room, and jail.

Not the sort of thing that generally makes for great entertainment, but Clowes has an appreciation for these misfit sadsacks – Wilson would enjoy meeting Seymour from “Ghost World,” before they drove each other nuts – and Johnson, who directed “The Skeleton Twins,” is good at mixing the
story’s many moods.

Steering its fine cast, too, which includes a fierce Laura Dern (channeling the trashy energy she brought to Payne’s “Citizen Ruth”), a gentle Judy Greer as Wilson’s dogsitter/masseuse, and newcomer Isabella Amara as Wilson’s newly discovered and less-than-thrilled daughter.

Best, though, is Harrelson, who’s had one of the more surprising careers in American films. The old “Cheers” show saw him as an amiable dope, but Oliver Stone glimpsed something mad in that jutting jaw and unblinking gaze and ever since “Natural Born Killers” Harrelson has been an unpredictably delightful character actor, full of dangerous glee.

And although his Wilson isn’t having a very good time of it, it’s certainly fun to watch him stumbling through life, as he looks at the world around him – second-hand bookstores replaced by cupcake shops, teenagers attached to cellphones – and says aloud the things most of us only think.

As well as some things we wouldn’t even dare think.

“Wilson” is a small film, and one that could be a little richer and rooted in reality. There’s not a word on how the jobless curmudgeon actually lives, for one thing; it’s also a little hard to see what women continue to see in this loser (a particularly Hollywood cliche for such an otherwise indie film). Still, you’ll want to spend time with “Wilson.”

Even if nobody else does.

Ratings note: The film contains strong language, sexual situations and violence.

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