Wendell Baker Story, The (2007): Luke Wilson’s comedy, Starring Luke Wilson and Eva Mendes

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

As the star, co-director and screenwriter of The Wendell Baker Story, Luke Wilson proves to be a surer screen presence than a gifted filmmaker.

Though hes given himself a great role as the titular conman hero, which he plays with modest, easygoing appeal, his lack of storytelling skill is all too clear in this meandering, malnourished comedy that falters badly once the uninteresting narrative starts to take shape.

“The Wendell Baker Story” premiered at last year’s SXSW’s Film Festival at Austin (where the story is set), but it took a whole year for the picture to find a theatrical distributor, ThinkFilm.

Wendell (Luke Wilson) lives in Austin, Texas, where he makes money selling fake IDs to illegal immigrants. His longtime girlfriend Doreen (Eva Mendes) wants him to put his life in order, but nothing gets through to him. When the authorities bust his illegal operation, he lands in jail for a spell. Once released, Wendell decides to go straight, but Doreen has moved on without him and is dating a new man (Will Ferrell).

Distraught, Wendell starts pursuing his new career goal: working in the hotel industry. But the first job he lands is at a retirement community taking care of the elderly, which includes some crusty but goodhearted codgers, played by eccentric vet actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassel and Kris Kristofferson.

The retirement home is run by the vindictive Neil King (Luke Wilsons brother Owen) and his evil sidekick McTeague (Eddie Griffin), who make life miserable for both Wendell and the residents. Wendell plots to improve the living conditions of the retirees while trying to win back Doreen.

Focusing more on character and tone than plot, The Wendell Baker Story recalls the spirit of 1970s films, such as Harold and Maude, where unique characters that existed outside the mainstream followed their own peculiar desires in slice-of-life adventures. Wilsons performance certainly fits with that decades emphasis on anti-establishment individuals, although his Wendell is so sweetly off-kilter and likable that his illegal pursuits are more a symptom of his immaturity than any desire to rebel against the staid status quo.

For its first act, The Wendell Baker Story is a pleasant charmer as it shows Wendells sleepy little universe, an existence where nothing is worth getting too stressed about. He may be suffering from arrested development, but the kindness he displays to those around him–including his girlfriend, who seems to have accepted his shortcomings, despite her reservations about their future–shows that he has only the best of intentions.

Unfortunately, once Wendell returns from prison and begins work at the retirement home, the film, which was co-directed by Lukes brother Andrew, begins its steep and irreversible descent. Luke Wilsons screenplay finds little humor in Wendells interaction with the residents, and Owen Wilsons performance as the mean head nurse is so broad that it clashes with the movies otherwise low-key vibe.

Additionally, the retirees attempts to help Wendell get Doreen back are insufferably cutesy. Stanton and Cassels characters are lazy Hollywood approximations of older men–horny and ornery but full of hard-earned wisdom–and they too dont seem nearly as layered as Wendell is.

As the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that, while care and attention have been given to Wendell, the filmmakers havent bothered to develop the people around him to the same degree. This becomes increasingly problematic as Wendell, as part of his desire to change his ways, tries to help the retirees, which requires other characters to take center stage.

As filmmakers, Luke and Andrew Wilson let their influences show. Not only do 1970s films come to mind, but also traces of the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson (whose Bottle Rocket starred Luke and Owen Wilson) pop up in the movies irreverent, ironic tone. These clear influences dont result in a slavishly derivative film, but as the story becomes less involving, the nods to other directors grow more obvious.

Playing the object of Wendells affections, Eva Mendes relies mostly on her physical beauty since the character has no dimensions. This deals another crippling blow to the movie: Wendells personal transformation is inspired by his fear of losing Doreen, but she doesnt seem alluring enough to deserve such devotion.

With much of a fine cast wasted playing caricatures–including Ferrell in a tiny part–the one bright spot is Jacob Vargas, whose turn as Wendells best friend Reyes is highlighted by a subdued charisma thats the equal of Wilsons. Reyes is featured prominently in the films first act, but when Wendell tries to recapture his old life after serving time, Reyes will no longer associate with him because his wife disapproves of Wendell. Consequently, his absence deprives the film of one of its most engaging characters.

The Wendell Baker Story is a labor of love orchestrated by Luke Wilson, who recruited many family members and friends to help out, in front of and behind the camera. And while some of that love is evident on screen, one cannot escape the feeling that it was probably more fun making the film than actually watching it.

Credits

Running time: 99 minutes

Directors: Andrew Wilson, Luke Wilson
Production company: Mobius Entertainment
US distribution: THINKFilm
Producers: Mark Johnson, David Bushell
Executive producers: Luke Wilson, David Bergstein, Ray Angelic, Oliver Hengst, Tracee Stanley-Newell
Screenplay: Luke Wilson
Cinematography: Steve Mason
Editors: Harvey Rosenstock, Peter Teschner
Production design: David J. Bomba
Music: Aaron Zigman

Cast

Wendell Baker (Luke Wilson)
Doreen (Eva Mendes)
Reyes (Jacob Vargas)
Neil King (Owen Wilson)
Nasher (Kris Kristofferson)
Boyd (Seymour Cassel)
Skip (Harry Dean Stanton)
McTeague (Eddie Griffin)
Dave (Will Ferrell)