Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

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Informant (2012)


Is Brandon Darby considering his actions or playing the martyr?

Is Brandon Darby considering his actions or playing the martyr?

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Brandon Darby, Scott Crow, Michael T. Stewart, Andrew Breitbart. Directed by Jamie Meltzer 

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Our belief system is usually powered by a number of different factors ranging from out upbringing, to our personal life experiences to our education. It really boils down to the things that are important to us. If it is a desire to do good for others, that’s one thing. It might be a desire to provide for yourself and/or your family. However, sometimes it’s all about one person.

Brandon Darby is not a very well-liked man these days among the radical left and that’s something of an understatement. It wasn’t always that way. He had always been mistrustful of government, leaning towards anarchism as a philosophy of politics. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his feelings were intensified as he felt that government on a local and state level but particularly on a national level weren’t doing the job in bringing relief to people suffering from a natural disaster.

To that end he co-founded Common Ground Relief with his close friend Scott Crow in order to speed relief to people who needed it most. As a community organizer, he became a champion in the radical left, one who was seen to have the ability to get the job done.

But through it all, despite the public face that continued to espouse the politics he always had, Brandon Darby was disillusioned. And after meetings in Venezuela in which he became further disillusioned with the politics he’d always held and after allegedly being approached to help fund a Palestinian terrorist organization, he flip-flopped.

He continued to lead Common Ground but he became an informant for the FBI. While participating in protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, he became aware of a pair of eager young protestors who had plans to do far more than carry signs. They were assembling Molotov cocktails to lob at police cars, presumably with policemen in them. This, Darby felt, couldn’t stand and he turned the two young men in for which the radical right has labeled him a hero and a patriot.

Both David McKay and Bradley Crowder were convicted and jailed for their roles, but they and other leftists who were familiar with the situation tell a different tale. In their version, Darby encouraged and manipulated the men into building the devices. His motivation was to look good for the FBI and allow him to exit to the far right where he belonged.

Darby comes off as a self-centered lout who is all about Brandon Darby and nobody else. Whether this is Meltzer’s portrayal or simply Darby being Darby is up to interpretation. Meltzer livens things up with re-enactments of certain events in which Darby portrays himself. I found that the re-enactments were confusing at first but once you figured out that they were re-enactments and not archival footage (which there is also plenty of) it wasn’t hard to follow. However, I thought they weren’t necessary, or at least overused.

Still, this is a fascinating story, a leader of the far left doing a complete about face. These days Brandon Darby is one of the shining stars of the Tea Party, speaking at Tea Party functions about his heroic actions (feel free to put heroic in quotes) and writing a column for Andrew Breitbart’s website. He claims to have gotten death threats from more radical elements on the left; certainly he is despised by those who were once his friends, who show the vitriol that only the betrayed can produce.

Whether or not Darby was complicit or not in the case of McKay and Crowder is always going to be a point of contention – certainly Meltzer has his opinion and while he doesn’t explicitly say it, I think you can infer his thoughts. For my purposes, I don’t think anyone can make such a profound change in their political thinking so rapidly unless their thoughts always leaned in the new direction in the first place.

REASONS TO GO: A compelling story with compelling characters.

REASONS TO STAY: The re-enactments blur the line a bit and were occasionally confusing and unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a summer release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Contender

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Iron Man 3