The Wendell Baker Story (now out on DVD) is what it promises to be, the story of a guy who wants to get back on his feet, win back his girlfriend, and run a major hotel, that’s all.
The Wendell Baker Story is a simple, heartfelt picture that slipped through the cracks after its initial limited release in 2005. Distributing it nationally in spring 2007 did little to increase its popularity, but its November 2007 release on DVD might just be the ticket to get this film into the libraries in which it belongs.
I’ll be honest, I had never heard of The Wendell Baker Story before Netflix recommended it to me with great urgency. It was so pushy about it that I finally said, “FINE!” and moved it up to the top of my queue, just to get it out of there as soon as possible. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to view this charming little piece of film candy. It was written by my favorite Wilson (Luke) and directed by him and his brother, my second favorite Wilson (Andrew, aka Futureman from Bottle Rocket and, hilariously, Beef Supreme from Idiocracy ). Owen also stars in the film and, actually, musters up the energy to play a different character than usual. I thought that long ago Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller had discovered the technology to make robots of themselves, programmed those robots to act in the exact same way over and over, and retired to go snowboarding or something in the Swiss Alps. I’m not convinced that Owen has destroyed his robot and left the Alps for good, but I didn’t once roll my eyes and sigh during any of his scenes, which is, in recent years, something that usually comes with the Owen Wilson territory.
In fact, everything about The Wendell Baker Story made me miss the Wes Anderson who directed Bottle Rocket, which was the first film for Anderson and all of the Wilsons. Bottle Rocket was artful and poignant without any of the gimmicks that his later films increasingly embrace. Anderson wasn’t involved in TWBS, but it has Wilsons all over it; and not only was it also shot in Dallas with a similar visual style, but the two films are alike in timing, humor, and even subject matter. Wendell Baker (Luke), a ne’er-do-well with an inability to get his life together and a penchant for petty crime, has a lot more luck than Bottle Rocket’s wannabe master criminal Dignan (Owen), but that’s OK. TWBS is a fantasy. It’s one Texan’s second chance at greatness, love, and a spectacular career. It’s not a character study or a think piece. It’s not supposed to be showy or pretentious. It is what it promises to be, the story of a guy named Wendell Baker, who wants to get back on his feet, win back his girlfriend, and run a major hotel, that’s all.
Luke Wilson doesn’t have to do much to be adorable, and he gets typecast as the sensitive sweetheart so much that it’s not surprising he wrote himself a more interesting character. Not that Wendell isn’t a sweetheart, but he and his seersucker suit sure get themselves in a lot of trouble with the law, even at the expense of his dream girl, Doreen (Eva Mendes). Watching Luke expand his horizons a bit is exciting, and the funniest parts are the ones in which he comes out of his shell and does very un-Luke-ish things. In fact, every character is humorous and engaging except Doreen, but she’s a hot girl so she’s not expected to have a personality, right? (That’s ten points from Gryffindor, Wilsons.) The excellent Harry Dean Stanton costars (you probably know him as Roman Grant from “Big Love“, but you SHOULD know him as Travis from Paris, Texas, which is a phenomenal film that needs to be viewed immediately), as well as Kris Kristofferson and Will Ferrell. Don’t recoil in horror! Will Ferrell cameos can still be funny, and this one is the best part of the entire film.
Even as I say that, I find myself thinking of six other parts that were just as good. Not only can the Wilsons survive without Wes Anderson, but they might even be better off. It’s definitely debatable. I certainly was more receptive to this film than I was to The Darjeeling Limited or The Life Aquatic, but then again, The Wendell Baker Story isn’t trying to break any barriers or win any awards. It’s fun, it’s funny, at times it’s even poignant, and best of all, it reminds you that those Wilsons have still got it. I don’t know about you, but that alone gives me hope for the future.