Balancing snark and sweetness is never an easy undertaking in storytelling, with two quite disparate elements either slipping one way or the other out of balance, or failing to get at all, leaving you with confused characterisation, a muddled narrative and ultimately, half-baked, listless story.
But in the case of Wilson, directed by Craig Johnson, and based on the cult favourite graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay), the push-and-pull between acerbic grumpiness and aspirational humanity is deftly and pleasingly handled.
The damn near perfect narrative balancing act gives us a film that, while itdoesn’t pull any punches when it comes to a bleak outlook on humanity and its less satisfying expression, never sink into a morasses of existential hopelessness.
Much of that comes down to Woody Harrelson, who has proved brilliantly adept in recent years at playing snarky, borderline dislikeable who are saved from being utterly unbearable to watch by a quick wit and a sage way with advice that, grumpiness aside, resonates with real truth and honesty (think his disillusioned teacher in Edge of Seventeen or his wily gungho apocalypse survivor in Zombieland).
Far from succumbing to the Johnny Depp curse of making every role that plays to his strengths sound like only a wafer thin departure to all of those that have gone before, Harrelson invests every role with a playful, emotionally-authentic difference that makes it easy to identify with and actually like characters who are definitely not on the Pollyanna end of the humanity spectrum.
Wilson is divorced, childless, and very close to the start of the film, fatherless after his dad passes away from cancer (his much-loved mother died some years before), friendless – his only remaining friend Orson (David Warshofsky) – his only emotional connection to his dog Pepper with whom he lives in a home that is piled high with books and other paraphernalia, so densely packed in that it’s less bohemian intelligentsia chic than borderline hoarder.
He doesn’t have a lot going for him, and remarks in the film’s opening scene on the yawning gulf between the excited expectation of childhood when life swims with a myriad of technicolour, limitless possibilities and later life when all the optimism and hope has given way to a resignation that all those dreams are dead in the water and not open to resuscitation.
It’s a bleak outlook, but given Wilson’s outlook, and the loss of wife Pippi (Laura Dern) and a hoped-for daughter to an assumed abortion, a realistic one that, owing to his self-declared emotional immaturity (he knows he has to grow up, his partial self-awareness part of his considerable appeal), seems to have no real chance of being challenged or overturned.
So you can imagine how happy he is when, following the deeply-emotionally death of his father – one of the great scenes of Wilson happens when the grumpy, mouthy, antisocial titular character reveals he has the same heart and longings as the rest of us, breaking down at his dad’s bedside – he reconnects with Pippi, who’s back in town trying to turn his drug-addled life around, and finds out he has a 17 year old daughter.
Well, after a manner of speaking anyway, given she adopted, not aborted all those years ago; naturally Wilson being Wilson, disillusioned with reality and looking for any straw to clutch, no matter how fanciful, takes to his newfound fatherhood with gusto.
He stalks Claire (Isabella Amara), Pippi, despite her substantial (and it turns out well-justified) misgivings, connects with her without any warning in a scene at a mall that is both heartfelt and hilarious all at once, and even takes her away for a weekend to Pippi’s sister Polly’s (Cheryl Hines) suburban idyll where unfortunately all the spinning plates that make up Wilson’s fantasy family life comes crashing down to the ground in a scene that is heartbreaking to watch in so many ways.
What it, and many other scenes establish profoundly and with a relatable, emotional vividness, is that Wilson, for all his railing against working with the establishment and selling out a consumerist, suburban culture, and his emotional hypocrisy (he claims to be a people person but for most of the film, hilariously isn’t) simply wants to be belong, to be loved, to matter.
It’s this humanity, which Crowe manages to both articulate and subvert to equal pleasing measure – every heartfelt sentiment, though truly meant, is matched almost word for word with a stinging, acerbic companion – that anchors Wilson, which never becomes unbearably snarky nor saccharine sweet.
While you could argue the ending is a subversion of much of the bile-drenched potshots that have come before, it actually rings beautifully true, exposes what we come to realise fairly quickly has been there all along – Wilson’s damaged but ultimately healable heart, which finds a great deal of its restoration through his friendship and later, relationship with onetime dogsitter Shelly (Judy Greer).
That Wilson manages to both affirm the fact that life’s limitless endless possibilities don’t come to a shuddering halt with childhood, and embrace the fact that it often feels like they do, speaks to Crowes inspired ability to speak to the grim reality of life in the trenches of adulthood.
It’s not perfect, often far from it, but it is salvageable, all appearances to the contrary and it is Wilson‘s to hold these two equally valid, and profoundly well-articulated truths in equal and relatable tension that grants the film, and the character always at its epicentre, such a truthfulness and likeability.
This is the film to see if you have become convinced that there is no hope left, that the only way to handle life is to treat everyone and everything as an existential enemy combatant, but are still inclined to believe that behind all the snark and the disillusionment lies a wittily-articulated way out of the deadend morass just waiting to be found if you’re so inclined.