The uneven charm of Woody Harrelson's Wilson

Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern star in Wilson.

Here's the weird thing about Woody Harrelson's title character in Wilson: He is at once cynical and uncomfortably affable, and that charms and repels the people around him in equal measure. As the film's poster illustrates, Wilson stands too close to people at urinals and engages them in conversation. Can you imagine? Wilson is a lovable, anachronistic figure in a world where most people try to avoid conversation with strangers by arming themselves with headphones and avoiding eye contact. These things don't deter the smartphone-lacking Wilson, who lives alone with a sweet terrier in a small house in Minnesota, overcrowded with paperbacks and VHS tapes.

The plot kicks off as Wilson's comfortable life of isolation begins to fall apart, first with the death of his father, and then when his only friends abruptly move to St. Louis. In one oddly hilarious scene, Wilson attempts to win a date with a fiery woman by slamming into the back of her car in the parking lot. That's psychotic but touching, right? The dichotomies just keep coming.

For lack of anything else to do, Wilson finds himself reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), who had run off to Los Angeles 17 years earlier. It's been a hard couple of decades for Pippi, but she's back in Minnesota trying to get her life on track. The two arrive at a kind of truce, and from there they embark on an ill-fated and poorly conceived plan to reconnect with their long-lost daughter, who's since been adopted by a rich, mean family.

I had high hopes for this picture for a few reasons. First of all, Woody Harrelson is an underrated comedic mastermind. Even when he's trapped in subpar films (think of his bit parts in romcoms like Friends with Benefits), his characters always deliver. Here, he's moving away from his usual machismo and giving us instead an awkward vulnerability, and it mostly works.

Second, I love a good R-rated comedy, and this one offers a lot of surprising and inappropriate outbursts that aren't allowed in more family-friendly movies. Like the things that Pippi screams at her sister before hurling a coffee pot across the room at her face. It's too scandalous to repeat here, even, and I dig that.

Finally, the film is written and directed by Craig Johnson, whose 2014 film Skeleton Twins was both amusing and moving. It's a much better film than Wilson, which feels more like a collection of disparate scenes and moments than the polished solidity of Skeleton Twins.

This is a real mixed bag. It's hard to recommend, and yet I hesitate to dismiss the picture entirely. Hardcore Harrelson fans will need to see this eventually, as it fits nicely into his oeuvre. And yet, I think he does best when he takes meatier supporting roles. (For example, did you see him as the deadpan teacher with heart in last year's The Edge of Seventeen?) But I have to admit, I laughed a lot watching this film, despite its uneven structure, and even though its plotlines and characters utterly failed to move me. Should you see Wilson? I don't know. How bored are you?

Wilson opens at the Roxy Fri., March 24.

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