Dateworthy: “Wilson” and “Life”

IS “WILSON” DATEWORTHY? : NO. This quirky comedy starring Woody Harrelson as a middle-aged oddball who tries to shake up his life by reuniting with his long-gone wife and the teenage daughter he never before knew he had has too many random moments and obnoxious characters to care about, and mocks Christianity in a couple of scenes to boot.
IS “LIFE” DATEWORTHY?: YES, BUT… This super-intense horror thriller stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds as space-based scientists who have found life on Mars, but soon discover that it’s rapidly growing, highly intelligent and wants to kill them all. Plenty of edge of your seat moments and some nice thoughtful touches, but better for jumping into each other’s arms from fear rather than romance.

This week, we offer two very different kinds of movies: the new character-driven, quirky comedy “Wilson” starring Woody Harrelson in a role tailor-made for his offbeat personality and edgy humor, and the sci-fi horror thriller “Life,” which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds among a team of astronauts aboard the International Space Station fighting for their lives against a malevolent life form from Mars.

While Harrelson has morphed with age from being a full-on movie star to one of the most in-demand supporting actors around, his new movie “Wilson” offers him a chance to stand front-and-center in a role that colorfully covers a spectrum of emotions. The problem is that, despite tackling their roles with gusto, Harrelson and an ace supporting cast play mostly obnoxious characters stuck in a plot that never really goes anywhere.

Harrelson plays the title character, an aimless, sarcastic misanthrope living in the nondescript city of St. Paul, Minn., who spends his days walking around with his dog and attempting to force conversations with strangers who want to run away within moments of encountering him. Middle-aged and alone, he is shocked out of his static existence by two pieces of news: that his best and only friend Robert (Brett Gelman) is moving to St. Louis and that his elderly father is dying of lung cancer. A string of odd encounters, including a bad date with a woman (Margo Martindale) he has absolutely nothing in common with, leads to him tracking down Pippi (Laura Dern), his former wife who seemingly had an abortion before leaving him 17 years ago.

Wilson thought that Pippi had ruined his chances at ever being a father, but after they get involved again, Pippi reveals that she actually had the baby and gave it up for adoption. Elated that he is a dad after all, Wilson convinces the equally scruffy Pippi – who at one point after leaving him became a crack-addicted hooker, but is now recovered – to join him in tracking down the now-teenage Claire (Isabella Amara), only to find that she’s an overweight and comically embittered misfit.

Attempting to make up for lost time in his own oddball way, Wilson keeps attempting to hang out with Claire (Isabella Amara), and eventually convinces her to come along with himself and Pippi to visit Pippi’s upper-crust, perfect sister Polly (Cheryl Hines). The idea is to make Polly believe that they’ve attained familial bliss, but things quickly go awry, resulting in all manner of mishaps.

This may sound like a clever set of circumstances, but the screenplay by Daniel Clowes— who adapted his own graphic novel of the same name— is too random for its own good. It’s impossible to describe the plot concisely because events keep spinning the characters into endless directions that often change without making much of a mark.

“Wilson” is stuffed with moments that director Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”) clearly hopes will be hilarious but which mostly fall flat because of the characters’ utterly unpleasant natures. While properly placed profanity can help spark huge laughs in some comedies, the foul language here is almost non-stop and winds up feeling like a crutch for shapeless and uncertain writing. There is also a brief, clothed sex scene. Even worse, the movie features a couple of scenes in which Wilson openly mocks the Christian faith. Add in the fact that there are plot and character holes throughout, and “Wilson” winds up being too much flash and not enough substance on an artistic level, and offensive on a moral one.

Meanwhile, “Life” features the story of a crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) who find themselves fighting for their lives after a seemingly innocent, tiny cellular life form adapts quickly into an ever-growing, malevolent creature that seeks to kill them and absorb their strength and intelligence when the astronauts try to exploit it for science.

The movie opens with the ISS crew awaiting an approaching probe from Mars, which is hurtling through space towards them with soil samples they hope will include the first evidence ever of life existing beyond earth. The lead analyst, Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), discovers that there is indeed a moving, microscopic organism that has come with the sample, and is excited because it’s the first evidence of life ever beyond Earth.

Humanity is excited as well, with a young girl winning a contest to name the organism and calling it Calvin. Hugh quickly becomes attached to Calvin, speaking of it with affection, while the other scientists, led by Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) and a doctor named David (Jake Gyllenhaal), are first in awe of Calvin, while sarcastic engineer Rory (Ryan Reynolds) warns them that they’re getting too attached.

When Hugh attempts to sting Calvin with an electric wand to see how it reacts, it latches onto and crushes his hand and almost instantly grows to a very visible size, appearing akin to an octopus. Hugh manages to break away from it, but Calvin gets loose and the team quickly has to seal the lab to keep it from entering the ventilation system and wreaking havoc throughout the station.

But Hugh has passed out from the pain and the crew fears for his safety, so Rory recklessly floats into the lab and attempts to pull his body out. He succeeds, but gets trapped himself. After failing to kill Calvin with an incinerator, the creature grabs his head, slides down his throat and crushes his internal organs.

What the crew quickly realizes is that each time Calvin latches onto one of them, it not only gets instantly bigger and more powerful, but also absorbs their knowledge. Thus, the remaining survivors not only have to figure out how to kill the Calvin but outwit it as well.

Eventually, they realize that Calvin may even be able to figure out how to get off the station and fly to earth, putting the entire planet in jeopardy. Thus begins a cat and mouse battle royale that alternates intense action with thoughtful moments in which the characters discuss what inspired them to pursue their careers.

“Life” is an impressively shot and paced horror thriller, as director Daniel Espinosa and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have fashioned a movie that relies more on tense atmospherics and exciting mind games than graphic blood and guts, a refreshing change from many recent movies such as “Kong: Skull Island.”

It does have some unmistakably intense and stomach-churning moments, particularly in the scene where Rory chokes on Calvin and winds up spitting up blood that floats in slow-motion, and a scene in which another astronaut has her spacesuit’s cooling system broken and chokes on the toxic fluid, but there are no exploding fountains of blood. Otherwise, the movie does feature about 60 profanities and obscenities, mostly F-words, in quick bursts during disastrous and deadly moments, with long stretches of the movie also foul language-free.

To its credit, the movie also has several well-written thoughtful scenes, particularly two involving David, who first describes that he loves being in space because he hates being around the murder and mayhem of earthly war zones that he had previously worked in. He later shares a beautifully written scene with Miranda in which he reads the classic children’s book “Goodnight Moon” during a brief respite from their peril.

Despite the high-quality scares and thoughtful moments, “Life” does have weak spots in the fact that there are a couple of key moments of poor story logic and an ending that some audience members may find is too big a surprise for its own good. For those who enjoy sci-fi horror movies in the vein of “Alien,” however, it does deliver enough scares to work.