“Wilson,” a dark comedy about a curmudgeonly hermit who tries to reconnect with the world, is one of those films where the whole is not quite as good as the parts. There are plenty of laughs and fun characters to keep us engaged, but they don’t add up to an emotionally satisfying story.
Woody Harrelson plays Wilson, an unfiltered loner who invades the personal spaces of others and offers pointed critiques of contemporary society, whether he’s with an unsuspecting dog-walker, a train passenger or even someone taking a leak in the urinal. We don’t necessarily buy that his victims would stick around long enough for him to utter more than a few syllables, but we laugh anyway as Harrelson mines these moments for all they’re worth.
Wilson’s main company is his terrier Pepper (even the dog is good in this well-cast film), though Pepper can’t lend enough emotional support when Wilson runs into some bad luck. First, his purported best bud, egged on by his acerbic wife (Mary Lynn Rajskub), moves away. Then Wilson’s father dies of cancer, and our hapless antihero decides it’s finally time to be part of the human race again.
The next sequences are the best part of the film, as Wilson looks up an old friend (David Warshofsky), whose gruff disposition makes Wilson seem like Elly May Clampett in comparison. Equally funny are Wilson’s encounters with a cantankerous pet-store customer (Lauren Weedman) and a horny dating prospect (Margo Martindale). The laughs continue when Wilson — with the help of social media, which he abhors — tracks down his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern, always good), none too pleased as Wilson mentions her past crack addictions at her workplace.
Harrelson and Dern are a hoot together, and it’s a credit to them that we believe that Wilson and Pippi could have been husband and wife. But things, slowly but surely, march toward the implausible when Pippi reveals that Wilson is actually a father, at which point he begins the search for the girl — whom Pippi gave up for adoption — in a bid to give his life more meaning.
Director Craig Johnson and screenwriter Daniel Clowes (author of “Ghost World”) try to balance the biting humor with the more sentimental father-daughter story, with mixed results. The laugh-out-loud factor, not to mention Dern’s presence, begins to decrease, and Wilson’s ultimate change from a misanthrope to a happy human being doesn’t ring completely true.
Nevertheless, “Wilson” never gets boring, even as we scratch our heads during unconvincing set pieces involving a prison, a reunion with a pet sitter (Judy Greer) who seems too good to be true, and a clunky visit to his daughter’s family home. It’s hard to dislike a film where almost every character, no matter how small, brings something to the screen, and because of that, “Wilson World” is worth inhabiting for a few hours.