Daniel Clowes is one of the great graphic novelists and jaundiced wits of our time, creator of fantastically bitter characters whose litanies of complaint and twisted avenues of philosophical inquiry would be tragic, or merely pathetic, if they weren’t also really funny. Clowes is like Anton Chekhov’s wiseacre American cousin. And, near-miraculously, director Terry Zwigoff’s film versions of Clowes’ graphic novels “Ghost World” (2001, featuring Thora Birch and a pre-stardom Scarlett Johansson) and “Art School Confidential” (2006) stayed true to the tone, rhythm and sneaky pathos of the Clowes books.
Now comes “Wilson.” The director is Craig Johnson, whose previous film was “The Skeleton Twins” (2014). Here he works from Clowes’ screenplay, based on his 2010 book.
Does it work as a movie, up and away from the pages of the graphic novel? Not quite. Even those who get a few laughs out of the title character’s multidirectionally insulting repartee, delivered with relish by Woody Harrelson in the title role, may wonder what’s so special about the source material.
The graphic novel’s felicities were many, beginning with Clowes’ ever-shifting illustration styles (he drew the one-page vignettes in a nutty variety of comic book aesthetics). “Wilson” worked in just enough narrative to keep those vignettes rolling. The death of Wilson’s father leaves the central figure with only his dog, Pepper, for company. He reconnects with his ex-wife, Pippi, who put their newborn daughter up for adoption many years earlier. This leads to an ill-considered kidnapping plot, involving Wilson, Pippi and their surly goth daughter, Claire; a prison sentence; Wilson’s re-entry into society and his relationship with his former dogsitter; and his eventual realization that there’s more to life than kamikaze social interactions and grudge matches.
The book was the best kind of vinegar. The movie settles for bland, indistinct flavors. Director Johnson wants to put the movie in a better mood, lest he commit commercial suicide. Harrelson gets stuck in bug-eyed neutral early on and stays there. In the role of Pippi, Laura Dern’s aghast reactions to Wilson’s uncouth mutterings are often the funniest thing in a given scene. Isabella Amara does well by the mall-dwelling, loner teenager whom Wilson and Pippi scoop up for a family road trip. Among the major players, though, the perpetually fabulous Judy Greer — as Wilson’s dogsitter — has the most natural affinity for Clowes’ deadpan sensibility.
“Wilson” benefits from a crack cinematographer (Frederick Elmes), here avoiding any overt stylization or fussiness with the images, and I like composer Jon Brion’s blithely sardonic “danger” themes. The chief obstacle is directorial miscasting. Aside from a quick, one-shot sight gag involving Wilson and a bunch of balloons on a trip to a zoo, Johnson overemphasizes the comedy and strains for the sentimental connection. Character motivations, or lack thereof, trip up the action in a way they did not in the graphic novel. (Dern’s character seems like a complete idiot for going along with Wilson’s Clark Griswold act.) A nervier, more divisive filmmaker such as Alex Ross Perry (“Listen Up Philip”) might’ve nailed the essence of Clowes’ stubborn misanthrope. Warming up this material, as Johnson tries to do, doesn’t make it warmer; it just makes it seem warmed-over.
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer
Rating: R for language throughout and some sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor