You ever have a neighbor or a co-worker or a friend of a friend who was off-putting, offensive, obnoxious and socially tone-deaf, to the point where you would find yourself muttering, “Ugh!” just at the thought of crossing paths?
Wilson is that guy. And “Wilson” is that film.
The problem with “Wilson” the movie is it’s just like Wilson the man, in that it almost always takes a situation one step too far and one step too dumb, robbing the moment of potential humor.
Example. The middle-aged misanthrope Wilson (Woody Harrelson in one of his less memorable performances) enters the men’s room at an amusement park and surveys the Urinal Situation. There’s only one other guy there, and as all men know, Restroom Etiquette dictates you take your stance as far away as possible from the other fella.
Not Wilson. He stands right next to the guy and engages him in conversation. It goes from awkward to funny to insightful, and it could have been an eccentrically effective vignette — but then Wilson says one more thing, and it’s obscene and it’s jarring and it’s deeply unfunny, and the entire scene dies a hard death.
This happens again and again with “Wilson,” and what a disappointment that is, given the source material is from graphic artist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World,” “Art School Confidential”), and the director is Craig Johnson, who helmed the wonderfully quirky “The Skeleton Twins” (2014).
Harrelson’s Wilson is one of those borderline personality guys who fills the air with his big-picture philosophical rants and condescends to the so-called sellouts living by society’s conventions — even as he struggles to make ends meet and he’s desperate for approval, to the point where he practically smothers a dog on the street with attention, much to the growing horror of the woman walking the poor pooch.
Laura Dern plays Wilson’s former wife Pippi, a recovering drug addict who may or may not have been turning tricks to get by in the years since she left Wilson. Pippi is suitably horrified when Wilson tracks her down and shows up at the restaurant where she works, but she makes the mistake of falling back in with Wilson, and they team up to locate and make a connection with their daughter, who was given up for adoption shortly after Pippi left Wilson.
Isabella Amara is terrific as Claire, who is now 17, smart, funny, overweight and dealing with bullies. Although Claire was raised by loving parents in a sprawling suburban home and has not wanted for anything, she clearly recognizes parts of herself in her unconventional biological parents, and she begins sneaking out of the house and meeting up with Wilson and Claire — even going on a weekend trip with them.
This does not end well for anyone, including the viewer. Wilson ends up doing time, and his prison experience is portrayed in broad, unfunny and dull sequences. (After being beaten by a couple of Aryan Nation thugs, Wilson inexplicably becomes their reading buddy. Ha ha ha.)
So many scenes in “Wilson” play as if they’re dropped in from a different genre. A tense reunion between Pippi and her snooty, oh-so-proper sister (Cheryl Hines) devolves into an embarrassing brawl. Judy Greer’s sweet, holistically inclined dog sitter has a bizarre character arc. Margo Martindale shows up for a brief scene as a woman who has a semi-date with Wilson and then instructs him on how to use the iPhone to find a long-lost connection. Wilson visits an old childhood friend, who is even nastier and more disconnected from society than Wilson himself.
And so it goes and so it goes, until it stops, and we’re relieved we don’t have to spend any more time with this troubled and troublesome lout.
Fox Searchlightpresents a film directed by Craig Johnson and written by Daniel Clowes. Rated R (for language throughout and some sexuality). Running time: 82 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.