Graphic novels, and the movies based on them, work better with certain topics than others. Sixteen years ago, Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World,” based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, centered on a pair of more-blasé-than-thou teenage girls who walked, and talked, outside the loop of everything they deemed boring and conventional; it was the perfect movie about the perfect pomo hipsters at the perfect “Whatever” moment. “Wilson,” directed by Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”), is also based on a graphic novel by Clowes, who wrote the film’s screenplay, and it’s driven by the same spirit of reflexive adolescent alienation — only this movie isn’t about kids. It’s about a lonely middle-aged bachelor curmudgeon misanthrope, named Wilson (we never learn if it’s his first or last name), who has let the entire culture pass him by, like a train he decided to jump off, only in his mind it’s the train’s fault.
The character is played, with a jaunty lack of self-pity, by Woody Harrelson, who wears horn-rims, a graying beard, and a nerd’s practical wardrobe (plaid shirt, Dockers). Wilson lives with his dog in a cruddy apartment stacked with old paperbacks, and when he’s out on the street, he’ll go up to a stranger and commence an eager-beaver “conversation,” paying no heed to how little his company is desired. He’ll subject them to one of his critiques of everything that’s wrong with society, which he spins out with a kind of brash autodidactic literacy. If his observations were actually interesting, then maybe the people he was talking to wouldn’t look like they were being assaulted. But Wilson tends to say things like “Aren’t you a little old to be doing all that computer stuff?” or “Why the hell do people move to the suburbs? It’s like a living death.”
If suburb-bashing sounds a little…I don’t know, 1985 to you, then welcome to Wilson’s world. He’s not dim, but he’s stuck in a soggy bubble of fraying boomer insights: technology is bad, hanging out is good, corporate homogenization is bad, saying whatever comes into your head with no filter is good. The hook of Wilson’s personality is that he’s an oddball-outsider who cuts through the bull. In truth, though, he sounds like an aging cranky white male whose arbitrary complaints boil down to the world no longer being the one that he grew up in. (If this were 100 years ago, he’s be griping about cars and telephones.) All of which is to say that in “Wilson,” Daniel Clowes’ voice, which was once acerbically hip, sounds dated.
Movies based on graphic novels don’t need to be superficial; just look at “American Splendor,” in which Harvey Pekar was a bohemian grouch with attitudes a lot like Wilson’s, but Paul Giamatti endowed him with a streak of vulnerability. Watching “Wilson,” you have to accept that the movie is a kind of a cartoon character study (Harrelson is good, but he never drops his guard). Once you do, though, it strings you along in its pleasant absurdist way. It’s a sign of the movie’s stylized goofy lightness that we never hear even two words about how Wilson survives (he has no job, but seems to feed himself and his dog and pay his rent with no problem). But then, as the movie goes on, it’s all too willing to leave plausibility behind.
When Wilson’s father dies, and his one and only friend moves away, the isolation begins to close in on him, so he hunts down his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), a former drug addict and prostitute who left him 17 years ago. She now works as a waitress in a steak house and is trying to walk the straight and narrow, and as they rekindle their bond, Wilson learns that the child he thought she’d aborted was, in fact, given up for adoption. Just like that, he looks the kid up! And she’s living right there in town! And she’s an alienated heavy-set teenage loser (Isabella Amara) who dresses in black and drops bitter pensées, just like the heroines of “Ghost World”! The three form a gently deranged ersatz clan, turning “Wilson,” for a while, into a flaky version of that Sundance staple, the dysfunctional-family comedy, complete with glib scenes that mock the “normalcy” of the girl’s adoptive parents (Cheryl Hines and Bruce Bohne). But that doesn’t last long.
Harrelson brings his wide-awake edge to this performance, yet “Wilson” is a soft-headed comedy. Even when our hero lands in a maximum-security prison, he winds up turning the violent psychopaths around him into puppies. And the always charming Judy Greer is on hand as the perfect mate for him: endlessly pliant and forgiving, the kind of woman whose very presence seals “Wilson” as a fairy tale. It’s the sort of movie that’s been known to do business, and this one could (moderately). Yet how much better it would have been if the director, Craig Johnson, had grounded the laughs the way he did in his breakthrough movie, “The Skeleton Twins,” which was both funnier and more realistic. Watching “Wilson,” I wondered what Wilson himself would make of a cookie-cutter graphic-novel adaptation like this one. He’d probably call it (rightly) so bourgeois multiplex.