The plight of protagonists missing absconded family members, and seeking to reestablish contact with them, could hardly be more differently explored than in two current films.
Based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Wilson stars Woody Harrelson as a gleefully loudmouthed misanthrope who tracks down his estranged wife Pippi (Laura Dern), then sets off with her on the trail of their daughter, whom Pippi gave up for adoption seventeen years ago. The reunion offers Wilson a belated shot at redemption, which then blows up in ways that threaten to knock him still deeper into bitterness.
A giant among graphic novelists, Daniel Clowes was the force behind 2000’s Ghost World, which took a familiar genre, the coming-of-age movie, and polished it to a fine gleam of sardonic wit. That film followed a pair of teenaged girls drifting through high school, trading deadpan quips and sarcastic put-downs of classmates. Director Terry Zwigoff pegged the alienated adolescent’s cult of irony, revealing behind it a Holden Caulfield–like fear of the messy compromises of adult life. Ghost World’s take on the adolescent preoccupation with authenticity found its object in Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, a fortyish nerd, obsessed with record collecting, whom the girls worship, conferring heroic outsiderdom on a loner who in reality mourns the fact that “I can’t relate to 99 percent of humanity.”
Harrelson’s Wilson exhibits many of the same loser/loner traits. He goes through life assailing strangers with riffs on the fallen state of humanity, firing off rude one-liners meant to skewer what he sees as the hypocrisy and shallowness of conventionality (when a passerby on the sidewalk stops to coo over his dog, he mocks her, addressing her in the same cloying voice). Wilson’s excesses—together with his wife’s cackling, acerbic responses—create an enjoyably snarky-funny repartee; but it gets lost in a parade of sentimental tropes as director Craig Johnson struggles to make Clowes’s edgy scenarios more audience-friendly.
Unfortunately, he succeeds; and the result is an interesting train wreck of a movie. Johnson is trying to fashion a heartfelt family comedy from material that glitters darkly with droll and anarchic elements. Harrelson labors valiantly, but he’s got manacles on; hewing to a conception of his character—and to a Clowes screenplay—that reflects a graphic novel’s compressed emotional shorthand, he ricochets from casual snark to neurotic self-doubt to blissed-out poeticism, and finally to maudlin dopiness and self-pity. The result is a bizarre mix of Woody Allen plus Allen Ginsberg, channeled through Peter Sellers’s simpleton Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, and injected with a bug-eyed dose of Popeye the Sailor Man.
In Ghost World, Buscemi’s oddball brio buoyed the themes of Clowe’s novel; as a result, that film “stayed true,” as Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips remarked, “to the tone, rhythm, and sneaky pathos of the book.” Not here. As Johnson channels Clowes’s unruly energies into a straightforwardly crowd-pleasing product, what passed for deadpan irony in the graphic novel comes off in Wilson’s protagonist as borderline developmental delay, and makes both him and the movie itself seem, well, cartoonish.