I’m writing this on Saturday, November 18, Owen Wilson’s 49th birthday. Last night was the opening of the touslehaired actor’s latest film — an adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 best seller — but I doubt he celebrated the occasion. I know I didn’t.
Watching Wonder, I felt as though someone had set off a sap bomb. Directed and cowritten by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), it’s the sort of sentimental button pusher in which every development is apparent from miles away. Since my seat was several feet from the screen, I’d intuited its 113 minutes before the first Goobers hit my stomach.
One hesitates to detail the film’s failures, as it’s based on a beloved novel about the need for kindness. I’m not anti-kindness. I’m anti-schmaltz. The novel is one thing; this is something else. The kindest thing I can say is that it makes a great case for bypassing the multiplex and beelining it to a bookstore.
Jacob Tremblay stars as Auggie Pullman, a plucky 10-year-old who’s undergone 27 surgeries to address craniofacial deformities resulting from a rare genetic mutation. His doting parents are played by Wilson and Julia Roberts. We learn early on that they’ve decided the time has come to transition from home study to school.
Auggie has always worn a space helmet in public. His father coaxes him into removing it before meeting classmates for the first time, and the revelation is shocking: He looks ... um, pretty normal.
Compared with real-life kids suffering from the condition — typically born without eye sockets, cheekbones or ears — Chbosky’s Auggie is borderline physically typical. OK, his beak’s a tad funky, but not a lot more than Wilson’s (savvy casting!). That’s the first sign that the edges of Palacio’s text have been smoothed to go down easy.
The next is Mandy Patinkin as Mr. Tushman, the world’s nicest middle school principal. He’s so invested in his new student’s success that he assembles a pint-size posse to show Auggie the ropes. Like all the film’s characters, they’re one-dimensional — nice kid Jack (Noah Jupe), wacky girl Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) and total trust-fund tool Julian (Bryce Gheisar).
If you’ve ever watched a movie about a kid trying to fit in at a school, camp or dystopian survival training course, it won’t surprise you that Auggie initially gets the cold shoulder from some peers. What will surprise you is how quickly everybody starts falling all over themselves to make him feel accepted. Maybe it’s Tushman trickle-down, but people are so nice it’s unreal.
Except Julian. He’s a privileged dick with insecurity issues. But mostly he’s just there to provide the requisite narrative conflict.
Ultimately, Wonder proves little more than a laundry list of developments geared to jerk tears. Auggie’s sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), hungers for attention and bonds with her grandmother (Sonia Braga); her grandmother dies. The family dog, Daisy, provides a needed sense of normalcy; Daisy dies. A secondary sap bomb goes off in the final act. “Shameless” doesn’t begin to cover it.
Tremblay’s earnest performance grounds the film in a facsimile of reality, while Roberts and Vidovic valiantly attempt to fill in psychological blanks left by the simple-minded script. Wilson’s part is so underwritten, it could’ve been played by a tousled Chia Pet.
Particularly in this Trump-fueled age of moral repugnance, ugly tweets and public mockery of people with disabilities, I embrace Palacio’s themes of kindness and understanding as passionately as anyone. It’s using them as an excuse for schlock like this that I can’t help but find grotesque.