Perhaps the most interesting thing about following the “career arc” of cartoonist/screenwriter Daniel Clowes is noticing the subtle shift that his work has taken toward the cautiously optimistic over the years. I’ve been a major fan of his for about as long as he’s been at it, and there’s not a single of his “major” works that I don’t consider to be flat-out masterful, but the outright nihilism of Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron shifted a few degrees toward the sympathetic unease of Ghost World , which then gave way to the happy-but-ultimately doomed resolution of David Boring, and then the bleak everyday hopelessness of Ice Haven and the quiet loss of a largely illusory past in The Death-Ray. One way or another, though, the message always seemed to be a variation on the idea that we were all destined to be slowly and silently crushed by the weight of silent but ever-present cosmic forces beyond our very comprehension, much less our control, and while later, post-Eightball graphic novels/novellas such as Wilson, Mister Wonderful, and the recently-published Patience don’t necessarily contradict that premise, they do each offer something of a suggestion that there’s a way to at least peacefully give in to, perhaps even co-exist with, this awareness of the inevitable. If you think about the fact that every day brings us one step nearer to the grave and that we’re each of us prisoners of our own foibles and shortcomings, sure, it would be enough to drive you nuts — but if you quit fighting against all that and instead call some sort of truce with with it, who knows? Maybe you’ll find some sort of contentment, perhaps even a semblance of happiness. It’s worth a try, at any rate.
The first two cinematic adaptations of Clowes’ work, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, offered reasonable-enough approximations of the core ideas explored by each on the comics page, and certainly director Terry Zwigoff seemed sympathetic to the idea of maintaining their integrity, but either a lot was lost in translation (Ghost World) or too much was added to it (Art School Confidential), resulting in a couple of films that were, at least in my view, rather up-and-down affairs. I certainly recommend seeing both, but I can’t pretend that they’re altogether successful. In certain respects they’re wildly so, but in others, they try hard but still miss the mark.
Which brings us up to the now. Working once again from a screenplay by the cartoonist himself, director Craig Johnson went off and made his own film (in my hometown of Minneapolis, no less — great to see my parents’ building on the screen as well as an appearance from Joe Minjares, owner of local Mexican restaurant institution Pepito’s, as a cab driver) without the same level of day-to-day involvement that Zwigoff afforded/extended to his collaborator. Surprisingly, the end result is probably the most faithful, in terms of both tone and content, of any of the “Clowes flicks,” and also the best of the bunch. Don’t ask me how that came to pass, but I’m downright ecstatic that it did.
The idea that the titular one-named character of Wilson is a stand-in for his creator is certainly accentuated by the uncanny physical resemblance achieved by star Woody Harrelson, but in many ways he’s more the sort of “unconventional everyman” we all know : the middle-aged guy who never “got his shit together” (there’s no mention of him having a job, for instance) and seems as lost at 50 as he was at 30 — heck, at 20. A lot of that is down to his own immaturity, to be sure, but he’s so ultimately harmless (to others, that is) that he’s definitely plenty lovable despite not being particularly likable. Still, even for a person this stuck in their ways, things happen that subtly shift their perspective, and for Wilson, the death of his largely-estranged father kicks off a bout of fear of his own mortality that sends him on a low-key odyssey to get back in touch with his fallen-on-hard-times ex-wife, Pippi (played by the always-exceptional Laura Dern), only to learn he has a now-teenage daughter named Claire (Isabella Amara) that he never knew about and who was given up for adoption. When the now-reunited “lovers” decide to interject themselves into their offspring’s life you know it’s going to go south, but watching it happen is both strangely heartwarming and massively entertaining. Wilson is an off-kilter personality, to be sure, but even at his weirdest he doesn’t do anything you couldn’t see someone vaguely like him doing, and Harrelson is never less than more or less perfect in what feels like a role he was born to play. When things do go off the rails for him thanks to a confrontation between Pippi and her neurotic, hyper-competitive, malicious sister, Polly (Cheryl Hines), they really go off the rails, but the absurdity of ensuing events is more than mitigated — heck, it’s made doubly believable — by the relentlessly low-key, “we’ll get through this” tone adopted by Johnson and channeled through his terrific cast. Clowes’ graphic novel employed the inventive conceit of telling its story by means of a series of one-page strips illustrated in a rotation of easily-recognizable “Sunday Funnies” styles, and while that would be impossible to faithfully translate visually to film without being jarring, the easy-going flow Johnson establishes at the outset and sticks to throughout cleaves to the temperament inherent in the book without being slavishly beholden to its exact technique. It works marvelously, in case you hadn’t already figured that much out, and if you’re not utterly engrossed by this film’s easy-going humor, lovingly-illustrated losers, and deep (without being overbearing) implicit understanding of the human condition, shit — I don’t know what it takes to make you happy.
And for much of the film, Wilson doesn’t seem to know what it will really take to make himself happy, either — he’s grasping for a “happily ever after” that never feels entirely out of reach, but his ill-considered actions ensure that he’s never more than a false move or two away from fucking it all up, either. The late-game arrival of his long-suffering dog-sitter, Shelly (Judy Greer), in a more prominent role in his life offers a last chance to get things right, but, as with all things, that could go either way, too. You can’t help but root for Wilson (heck, for everyone) until right up to the end, but unless and until he learns to find a measure of appreciation for what he has and how to let go of the way he wishes things could be, the ever-present, if largely unremarked-upon, tension that has underpinned his entire adult life will continue unabated. Watching how this all plays out is yet another of the film’s central joys, and even though Wilson’s utter cluelessness can be infuriating, it’s somehow never annoying. That takes deft scripting, direction, and acting to pull off, and damn if all parts of that trifecta aren’t present and accounted for here.
Everyday life is a deeply complex and multi-faceted affair even at its most purportedly “easy” times, and even if we don’t see it as such while it’s happening. Wilson is an unassumingly honest and humane reminder that even at its lowest ebb, there is something very much akin to magic to be found in it — if only we can allow ourselves to be our own best friend rather than our own worst enemy.