'The Wendell Baker Story' Is a Dysfunctional Family Affair
The Wendell Baker Story, written by Luke Wilson and directed by Luke and older bro Andrew, bowed in March 2005 at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where the film had been shot two years earlier. That the movie—which also stars other brother Owen Wilson, Eva Mendes, Eddie Griffin, and, in an extended cameo, Will Ferrell—is only now seeing the light of day in a few theaters suggests an imperiled product. (Bigger warning sign: It's also been available on DVD in Europe for some time.) And while there have been business-end catastrophes to blame—one of the production companies went out of business, extending Wendell Baker's residency in purgatory—there is a deeper problem here than the sudden emptying of shallow pockets: Despite its very occasional awkward charms, the film is a muddled and forgettable mess.
Blessedly, its aspirations are low; you get the sense the bros were just happy to get the thing in focus most of the time. While Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are off indulging a bloodlust for drive-in pics of the late 1960s and early '70s, the Wilsons are revisiting their love affair with every movie Warren Oates, Paul Le Mat, and Peter Fonda ever made for a trunk full of grass and a case full of bourbon. Though it's set in the modern day—well, it was four years ago, anyway—Wendell Baker is self-consciously a '70s pic in which the antihero's just a sweetheart hiding behind reflective aviator shades and the good guys are nothing but sumbitches in white.
Luke plays the title character, a con man who finds that dreaming big means living small. With his amigo Reyes (Jacob Vargas), Wendell runs a fake-ID business along the Texas-Mexico border, where he fast-talks migrants out of their loose dinero by insisting he taught Chi Chi Rodriguez how to swing a golf club and made good citizens out of every Latino actor in Hollywood. His girlfriend (Mendes) wishes Wendell would quit the illegal biz and get a real job; he tells her, hell, he's doin' more than making money—he's a regular Ellis Island on wheels, making north-o'-the-border dreams come true. The feds don't see it that way, and Wendell winds up in prison—where, in one of the funnier throwaway gags, he brokers a peace accord between gang-bangers and the Aryan Nation.
Wendell finally gets paroled to a state-run old folks' home populated by unscrupulous nurses (Owen Wilson as Neil King, Griffin as the mono-monikered McTeague) who gouge cagy codgers (Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassel, Kris Kristofferson) out of their pension checks. Turns out, Neil's shipping off the elderly to his maw's place in Oklahoma, where she puts them to work out in the backyard shed. So it's up to Wendell to put a stop to it—but not before winning back Mendes's Doreen from a grocery-store owner (Ferrell) with a temper shorter than Wendell's winning streak. And it turns out Kristofferson's character, Nasher, is more than some old fart whiling away his hours watching old Westerns in a darkened room. Think Howard Hughes, without the jars of urine.
Maybe the most dispiriting thing about The Wendell Baker Story is how messy and impersonal it feels—like it could have been something that fell off a studio assembly line and landed on the dusty shelf where it should have stayed. Luke wrote it years ago, before he started showing up in every other movie on the release schedule, and stuck with it long after it debuted to yawns in Austin and Denmark and Belgium. But it doesn't give off that spark that comes with a passion project; it doesn't feel like Luke and Andrew had to make it, only that they kinda-sorta-barely did and, ya know, like, here it is or something? It's also astoundingly odd that Luke Wilson's most personal film looks like all the other spotty products that soil his filmography once stripped of the Wes Anderson glow.
Wendell Baker does have one thing going for it: Harry Dean Stanton, freed from the shackles of decrepitude that have imprisoned him in so many of the indie films for which he's cast as a wheezing half-corpse. He and Cassel, quietly affecting as the haircutting pop in Rushmore (co-written by Owen), are rarely shown without broad smiles across their weather-beaten faces; they're amiable lechers who haven't been laid in decades and find potential paramours in underage convenience-store checkout girls smitten with their creaky come-ons. Too bad they're a buddy-picture duo stuck in someone else's far less interesting redemption story. And it doesn't help that Luke just can't carry a movie, not even if you spotted him the forklift.
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