The Wendell Baker Story
Rated PG-13, 95 min. Directed by Andrew Wilson, Luke Wilson. Starring Luke Wilson, Seymour Cassell, Eddie Griffin, Kris Kristofferson, Eva Mendes, Harry Dean Stanton, Owen Wilson, Spencer Scott.
I hate to sound like a disappointed parent, but I expected more from Luke Wilson. After he shined as a new kind of confused and despondent hero in Bottle Rocket, after he saved The Royal Tenenbaums from drowning in cleverness, after he anchored Old School with a little real-life pathos, I thought for sure the youngest Wilson brother was bound for great and original things. Well, The Wendell Baker Story (which made its world premiere at South by Southwest Film 05) will teach me to get my hopes up. Wilson wrote the movie and co-directed it with his oldest brother, Andrew, and its first half in which we meet Wendell, a good-natured, fast-talking, seersucker-suit-wearing deadbeat who's arrested for selling fake driver's licenses to illegal immigrants out of an old Airstream trailer ("The Ellis Island of the Southwest") – is harmless enough. Sure, it owes a heavy debt to the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona – with its cockeyed camera angles, elaborate comic set-pieces, and its story about a lovable loser who finds himself on the wrong side of the law – but at least there's life and energy in those first 40 minutes. Which is more than you can say for the second. After Wendell is released from prison, his story and his personality take a dramatic turn for the soporific. Suddenly, this two-bit con is playing the hero, fighting against the sinister head nurse of a retirement hotel (played by the middle Wilson brother, Owen, who once again shows off his acting chop), and gradually stripping himself of any discernible personality traits, save dull decency. Rallying a band of mistreated elderly residents, Wendell sets out to make things right at the hotel and win back the love of his estranged girlfriend, Doreen (Mendes), who, apparently, was sick of dating a man who wears aviator sunglasses. And just like that, Wendell Baker – charming snake-oil salesman, ice purveyor to the Eskimos – is dead, replaced by Wendell Baker – self-help philosopher and rank sentimentalist. Of all the types of heroes in Hollywood history, there is none so depressing as the free thinker whose sins are washed away in a river of conventionality. Poor Wendell, we hardly knew you. (See p.62 of this week's Screens section for an interview with Luke and Andrew Wilson.)
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