The Reeler


May 18, 2007

The Wendell Baker Story

Luke channels Owen (badly) in low-concept comedy

Wendell Baker is a charming, fast-talking conniver. He's got a way with women and a thing for proclamations of stoner wisdom. He could sell snow to an Eskimo. He could piss on your leg and convince you it was raining. He is, in other words, the ultimate Owen Wilson character. So why is he played by his brother Luke?

Luke Wilson has a good thing going being Luke Wilson. He's the brother with the good looks; he's the one that can play a guy's guy (Old School, Idiocracy) or the cuddly, safe object of feminine desire (Legally Blonde, Alex & Emma). He's also the one that may be the most likeably square leading man in Hollywood. But you walk away from The Wendell Baker Story with the melancholy feeling that Wilson isn't entirely happy or comfortable in his own skin and that he'd much prefer being in his brother's. In the past, it's been Owen who was also the family writer, working with director Wes Anderson, but Luke tries that here too as well: Wendell is his first screenplay, as well as his directorial debut with the help of his other brother Andrew.

Wendell starts off the film in the middle of a scheme to sell fake ID’s to illegal immigrants; he sees himself as a public servant and hero for providing these good people a much needed service. Though he’s promptly thrown in the slammer, Wendell is so unflappably upbeat, he barely bats an eye. He's having so much fun tossing around the pigskin with the boys that he doesn't even notice he's ignoring his long-suffering girlfriend Doreen (Eva Mendes) during visiting hours.

Owen's here too, of course. He's playing the Ben Stiller role: Neil King, the evil overlord of the nursing home where Wendell works after he leaves prison. With his sidekick McTeague (Eddie Griffin), King exploits his tenants for cheap labor and ships the unruly customers off to a mysterious death trap called Shady Grove. Wilson hams it up with slicked back hair and a funny uniform and sits around plotting unspeakably evil schemes. It's such a Ben Stiller role, in fact, that Stiller has actually played it before, in an uncredited turn in Happy Gilmore.

As the title suggests, The Wendell Baker Story wants to turn its hero into a kind of mythic figure of laconic, couldn’t-care-less cool, like Ferris Bueller and Burt Reynolds all rolled into one. He's even got his own signature fashion sense: seersucker suit; aviator shades. But nothing Wendell does lives up to the aura around him. His antics are more grating than ingratiating.

It's tough to say Luke should abandon directing altogether and stick to acting; Lord knows other actors have made much worse movies (Sylvester Stallone's Staying Alive anyone?). But there's little evidence here that he's a major filmmaking talent, or that if he was, he could have added much more to this flat, unambitious story. If he were played by Owen Wilson, Wendell might have made this fast-talking conniver a bit more charming; the movie still wouldn't have been much good. Above all, Luke should stick to being Luke.

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