The Owen and Luke Wilson Story
Time for a new chapter, guys.
Whither the Wilson brothers? It's 11 years now since the three strapping Dallas lads—Andrew, Owen, and Luke, going from oldest to youngest—first appeared in Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson's debut feature about a gang of bumbling thieves. Since then, the younger two have arrived at the graced state of movie stardom without appearing to break a sweat. In fact, not breaking a sweat is integral to the Wilson ethos. You won't see these guys losing 60 pounds for a role, Christian Bale-style, or jawing about their craft to James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio. They amble from movie to movie with the insouciance of the Southern slackers they are, always giving the impression of being busy elsewhere with something more interesting.
The quintessential Wilsonian protagonist is a gifted but aimless young man, a bit too slick for his own good, who disappoints everyone by failing to live up to his promise—then, in the last act, he puts in just a little more effort and manages to get the girl and win the day after all. But (to paraphrase a recurring line uttered both by and to Owen's ne'er-do-well character in Wedding Crashers), the Wilsons aren't that young. Luke is 35 now, Owen 38, and Andrew—the seldom-seen Gummo of the Wilson clan and co-director of their just-released venture The Wendell Baker Story—has crossed the four-decade Rubicon to 42. The Wendell Baker Story is too slight a goof to withstand much critical scrutiny—let's just say that it disappoints, Wilsonishly, by failing to live up to its promise. But that very fact makes the movie as good an excuse as any to assess the brothers at midcareer.
Owen has carved out two separate niches for himself: as co-writer of the clever if increasingly hollow Wes Anderson films in which he also appears (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), and more prominently as the Butterscotch Stallion, the eternally bemused golden boy in heist capers (The Big Bounce), buddy spoofs (Starsky & Hutch; Shanghai Noon), and romantic comedies (Wedding Crashers). Owen at his best, adrip in sun-kissed smarm and immune to negativity, is exemplified by the character of Kevin, Teri Polo's aggravatingly perfect ex-boyfriend in Meet the Parents. Kevin is everyone's nightmare rival, a master at skydiving, horseback riding, and carpentry (because "if you're going to follow in somebody's footsteps, who better than Christ?") and the funniest onscreen rival since Tim Robbins' sanctimonious karate expert in High Fidelity. In this scene, Kevin unveils his wedding gift, a hand-carved wooden altar, with a finely calibrated mix of modesty and self-congratulation that bespeaks the essence of Wilsonness.
The bad Owen lies just a hair's breadth away from the good one. Strip Kevin of his subtlety, dumb down his dialogue by 15 percent, and that hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie begins to shade into frat-boy complacency. This is what's happened in Owen's last few romantic comedies, most notably the dreary You, Me and Dupree, which repackaged Owen's loopy appeal, his legitimate weirdness, into the stock humor of the "wild and crazy guy." Owen plays Dupree, the cutup college buddy of the straitlaced Matt Dillon (who should have won a Purple Heart for all the mugging he stoically endured). Here, Dupree settles in as the unwelcome houseguest of Dillon and his new bride (Kate Hudson), toting a ukelele and a taxidermied moose head.
Notice how Dillon checks his watch as Dupree begins to ramble about being fired from his job. Is the old Dupree (read: Wilson) charm beginning to wear thin? Are the practicalities of adult life rearing their ugly heads? Dupree (and, to a lesser degree, Wedding Crashers) takes as its theme these questions without seeming to realize that its leading man also embodies them. Dupree's cuteness, the movie wants us to believe, is on the wane—and he has about 90 minutes to learn his lesson and grow up. This being a romantic comedy, he gets the job done in time. But in order for this conceit to work, the audience has to accept Owen Wilson's cuteness as a given; unlike Matt Dillon, we're not supposed to be consulting our watches in the dim theater light. With his crooked nose and wheedling drawl, Owen is a winning enough presence to survive the movie relatively unscathed. You walk out still liking him, but resentfully, as if you'd let your own college buddy sweet-talk you once too often.