Wilson — it’s not clear if that’s his first or last name — is a misanthrope with a sentimental streak, a guy whose grouchiness is leavened by oddball touches of Minnesota Nice. He is furiously disdainful of most of the people he meets, but also has a habit of sidling up to them and initiating awkward conversations with a smile halfway between a snarl and a leer. Humanity annoys him, and he’s happy to return the favor.
Which makes him, on paper, an intriguing character. By "on paper" I mean, specifically, in the pages of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Wilson, a funny-sad, episodic portrait of everyday loneliness and longing. American literature — and American comic-book literature in particular — hardly lacks for disaffected, middle-age white guys, but Wilson has his own special brand of abrasive charm.
Not onscreen, though. The movie version of Wilson, directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) from a screenplay by Clowes, illustrates the difficulty of translating an idiosyncratic temperament from one visual medium to another. The dark, comic poignancy of the book is drowned in garish, self-conscious whimsy, and the work of a talented ensemble is squandered on awkward heartstring snatching.
Wide-eyed and gaptoothed, with heavy-framed glasses and a copper-and-silver beard, Woody Harrelson plays Wilson as a kinetic ball of conflicting impulses. He’s unpleasant, but not in an especially interesting way, and ingratiating in a way that’s even drearier. The other people in Wilson’s life — his foils, enablers and marks — are played by capable actors. Laura Dern is his wayward ex-wife, Pippi. Cheryl Hines is her judgy sister, Polly. Judy Greer is Wilson’s dog-sitter, and Isabella Amara is the almost-grown daughter he never knew he had. Mary Lynn Rajskub and the character actress Margo Martindale each have a few minutes of screen time.
As is often the case with well-intentioned, misbegotten projects, you’re happy to see them even as you wonder how they ended up here. The same is true of the composer Jon Brion, a usually brilliant musical artist whose score in this case is an unpalatable cocktail of jauntiness and melodrama, swamping the action rather than complementing it.
Antic, joyless and sloppy, Wilson tries to provoke and beguile you, but the best you can manage is to feel sorry for it.