The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Weak ‘Wilson’

Wilson poster

“Face it, Bick: we are the older generation.”
– Leslie, Giant (1956)

It’s as inevitable as the rising sun: we’re all going to get old. Barring some unforeseen tragedy that takes us down in our youth, we’re all going to have to face the eventuality of our hair turning gray, our skin beginning to sag, our motor skills slowing down, and our favorite pop culture treasures being regarded as ancient artifacts. It’s not exactly the most pleasant thought in the world, but it’s a road we all have to travel eventually.

The good thing is that with age comes perspective: should you choose to pass your knowledge on to your successors, you can help them determine which things (styles, outlooks, technologies) still have relevance. Everyone and everything gets old, but you can help them know the difference between a classic and something obsolete.

Wilson isn’t about that. Instead, it mistakenly believes that an old man yelling at a cloud is somehow right and everyone young is ruining this once-great world.

Wilson is old. He doesn’t understand the digital world or why the things he liked as a youth have gone out of style. He thinks his unapologetic candor is improving things around him, but it certain doesn’t improve him. Insecure about having no lasting legacy, he tracks down his estranged wife, Pippi (Laura Dern). After charming his way back into her life (and her pants), she reveals to him that the child she supposedly aborted was actually put up for adoption seventeen years ago.

With a renewed interest in life and determined to make up for lost time, Wilson drags Pippi along as they track down their long-lost daughter (Isabella Amara) and give her the parents she never wanted.

If you’re going to make a story about a loveable asshole, you have to balance those two character traits equally. Any tip in the wrong direction and your character will either come off as too off-putting (making any perceived sympathy for them seem forced) or too sentimental (which won’t explain why they’re so hate-filled). Terry Zwigoff knows how to pull off this balance. He did it masterfully with Crumb, Bad Santa, Ghost World, and Art School Confidential, the latter two of which were written by this film’s author, Daniel Clowes.

The fact that Zwigoff didn’t direct this film is the first sign that something is wrong. As a screenwriter Clowes is like Aaron Sorkin, in the sense that, as Nathan Rabin once put it, he needs a direct who will both hold him back and bring out his strengths. “If left to his devices,” says Rabin, “[he] doesn’t lurch into self-parody; he leaps.” (It should be noted that Alexander Payne was originally slated to direct before stepping down. He remains credited as a producer.)

As I watched Wilson, based on Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name, I started thinking of James L. Brooks’ As Good as It Gets, a film Roger Ebert once described as Brooks’ attempt to “hammer square pegs into round holes”. In Wilson, Clowes and director Craig Johnson use industrial-powered machinery to drill sentiment into the audience. All it does is leave a mess. It would be one thing if the eponymous Wilson were at least in some way relatable in his awkwardness. Instead, we’re supposed to sympathize with a man who knowingly bothers strangers in public because they’re trying to get work done on laptops, but won’t engage him in conversation. It’s not Wilson at fault for harassing these people, you see, but rather their fault for not being open to an elderly stranger who wants them to listen to him hurl off obscenities.

The film is equally misguided in its characterizations. The cast are all great actors (of particular note are Isabella Amara as Wilson and Pippi’s daughter Claire, and a wasted Judy Greer as Wilson’s dog-sitter), but the “characters” are all stereotypes masquerading as human beings. The original graphic novel began as a series of disparate strips by Zwigoff. In comic strips it makes sense to limit what you do, given the time and space allotted. Film, on the other hand, requires a bit more to make characters seem more real. Everyone here gets a name (if they’re lucky) and one character trait (husband, wife, etc.) before the majority of them are never seen again for the rest of the running time. I imagine the episodic narrative is another holdover from the strip. It fails just as much as all the others.

It’s fine to look at the fast-moving new world and wonder where you fit in, but you need to do so with perspective. If your age hasn’t given you the wherewithal to look at the bigger picture and try to see things from another perspective, then you’ve outlived your usefulness. If your only reaction to growing old is say that young people are at fault for simply being young, then you’ve officially become a fossil. As quite a few old timers have told me, lo these many years: the one thought you always know is wrong is the one where you think the world revolves around you.


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