Seven of the Best With Owen Wilson

From small town crook to the ultimate speedster, the most unmissable roles of the Texas actor’s career

There's an old saying in cinema: "One for the studio, one for the artist." This idea that a filmmaker or actor can ever really keep a foot in both worlds without a feeling that they're slumming it, either when it comes to pay or artistry. But that's never felt true with Owen Wilson. Emerging through the indie explosion of the 1990s, he's retained that cachet while topping the box office in mega-franchises, at every turn still seeming like a star with underground instincts.

Bottle Rocket

Dignan in Bottle Rocket (1994/1996)

A rare triple launchpad for the careers of three of major talents of indie cinema – Owen Wilson, his brother Luke, and Wes Anderson. In 1994, the trio collaborated on a short about two inept small-town crooks, starring the brothers, directed by Anderson, and written by Owen and Wes. Two years later, with the backing of James Brooks, they turned it into their debut feature, retaining Owen's laconic and starry-eyed delivery as buzz-cut wannabe heist man Dignan.

Kevin Rawley in Meet the Parents (2000)

In Jay Roach's slapstick romantic comedy of discomfort, it's clear that future father-in-law Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) is the nemesis of Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) in his quest to woo Jack's daughter, Pam (Teri Polo). But it's ex-boyfriend Kevin that provides the clear villain of the piece – clear to Greg and Greg alone, that is. As the too perfect, too nice, too handsome Kevin, Owen adds a subtle slice of corn-fed, homely malice to the literal boy next door, his stalkery ambitions to get Pam back all wrapped up in smooth passive-aggression.


Hansel McDonald in Zoolander (2001) and Zoolander 2 (2016)

Stiller created empty-headed supermodel Derek Zoolander in 1996 as a sketch character for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards, and the fact that he came back in 1997 and got his own spin-off movie four years later proved the character had catwalk-ready legs. But it's the addition of Owen as the harebrained hipster-hippie Hansel that made this high fashion spoof acerbic, hilarious, and sweet. If the joke was that Stiller was the antithesis of model good looks, Wilson was more plausible – yet he never once fell into the straight man role, instead matching Stiller for idiocy. It's their combined self-assured stupidity that makes the Walk Off one of the all-time great comedy set-pieces.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Three of Owen's great collaborators come together in the story of the dysfunctional Tenenbaums: Anderson in the director's chair, with whom Owen co-wrote the script; brother Luke as moody tennis prodigy Richie Tenenbaum; and Stiller as manic math wiz Chas Tenenbaum. Off to one side is Owen as Eli, the starstruck novelist next door desperate to be part of the bourgeois Tenenbaum legacy even as the children do their damnedest to escape its toxic, destructive clutches.


Lightning McQueen in the Cars Franchise (2006 onward)

There's a generation of kids whose favorite anthropomorphized cartoon character isn't a bear or a lion or a dog, but a bright red NASCAR speedster going by the name of Montgomery "Lightning" McQueen. Wilson already had his voicework wings in the most Texas way possible playing Luanne Platter's fiancé, Rhett Van Der Graaf, in King of the Hill, but over the border in New Mexico he brought humor and heart to the hubristic champion who learns humility and how to be a friend in the little town of Radiator Springs. Animated immortality awaited in films, TV shows, video games, and even one of the best rides in Disneyland.

John Grogan in Marley & Me (2008)

"Couple buys a dog, hijinks ensue" scarcely seems like the kind of story to snuggle into the hearts of audiences. Yet Wilson starring in and narrating this sometimes-slapstick film version of John Grogan's 2005 memoir of dog ownership was so quirky and heartfelt that you really understood that Marley was, indeed, a great dog.

Mobius M. Mobius in the MCU (2021 onward)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a place of miracles and wonder, seeming to leave little space for ordinary people beyond running away from some cosmic punch-up. No place, that is, unless you're Mobius, lower-middle management at the Time Variance Authority and wrangler of the trickster god, Loki. Mixing a working man's blithe and blind commitment to tedium with a quasi-religious belief in the TVA's mission, all wrapped up in a very Seventies suit, Mobius may be the perfect melding of all prior aspects of Owen – the surrealist, the silly, the observational, and the crowd-pleasing.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Richard Whittaker
That's One Pricey Burrito: Chuy's Sells for $605 Million
That's One Pricey Burrito: Chuy's Sells for $605 Million
Austin original acquired by Darden Restaurants, Inc.

July 18, 2024

Pale imitation of what made the original such an unexpected smash of a disaster movie

July 19, 2024


Owen Wilson, Paint, Bottle Rocket, Marley & Me, Cars, Lightning McQueen, Meet the Parents, The Royal Tenenbaums, Zoolander, Eli Cash, Dignan, Hansel, Mobius M. Mobius, Loki

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle