D: Andrew Wilson, Luke Wilson / 99m
Cast: Luke Wilson, Eva Mendes, Seymour Cassel, Harry Dean Stanton, Owen Wilson, Eddie Griffin, Jacob Vargas, Kris Kristofferson, Will Ferrell
The less successful of the Wilson brothers, Luke has had a patchy career in comparison with his older, A-list sibling Owen, but he’s often provided audiences with more enjoyable offerings – Henry Poole Is Here vs Drillbit Taylor anyone? – even if they haven’t had the same box office success. In The Wendell Baker Story, Luke enlists his brother’s help in telling the story of a man who sells counterfeit driving licences to illegal immigrants before a spell in jail shows him his true calling in life: working in the hotel industry. But when he’s finally paroled, he finds himself working at a retirement home instead.
The home, Shady Grove, is run by Neil King (Owen Wilson). King isn’t interested in providing proper care for the residents, and is running a scam that he thinks Wendell will be the perfect patsy for if it comes to light (the scam involves him falsifying residents’ being there but still claiming their pensions and selling their medication on the black market). As Wendell gets to know everyone better, including Boyd Fullbright (Cassel) and Skip Summers (Stanton), he begins to realise just how bad things are at Shady Grove. With the help of reclusive resident Nasher (Kristofferson), and ex-associate from his driving licence days, Reyes (Vargas), Wendell, Boyd and Skip travel to King’s mother’s home – where the supposed “residents” are actually being hidden – to rescue them and so expose King’s scheme.
Alongside this, Wendell is trying to win back the love of his life, Doreen (Mendes). They were together before he went to prison but while he was inside, Doreen moved on and is now seeing a supermarket owner, Dave (Ferrell). Wendell makes a couple of clumsy attempts to win her back but he doesn’t reckon on just how disillusioned Doreen is with him, even if he is trying to get his life back on track.
Wendell himself is an endearing character, Wilson’s boyish charm going a long way to making the audience like him. He has an innate goodness that anyone can see a mile off, and a small measure of naiveté to match. He gets along with anyone and is able to mend bridges between people (though the prison scene where he gets the Aryans and the Crips to gather in a group hug is a little too far-fetched). But as much as Wendell is a nice guy he’s also a little dull, and Wilson doesn’t add much else to the mix to make him more interesting. That’s left to Cassel and Stanton who make each scene they’re in that much more watchable, especially when they chat up two young women at a store; they inhabit their roles in a way that Wilson doesn’t. The older Wilson is the same, putting in only half a performance and coasting his way through the movie, leaving King looking less like a serious adversary and more like an unconvincing playground bully.
However, the fault for all this lies squarely at the feet of Luke Wilson. As the movie’s writer, star and co-director (with the eldest Wilson brother), Luke fumbles the ball in terms of characterisation and story. Everything is done with a light touch, as if the idea of adding some depth to the movie was anathema, or might spoil the overall effect. While this doesn’t make for a bad movie per se, it does undermine its potential; it’s still enjoyable on a superficial what-you-see-is-what-you-get level, but viewers will probably have seen many other similar movies already. And here, familiarity comes very close to breeding apathy rather than contempt.
But somehow, despite all this, The Wendell Baker Story does raise more smiles than groans, and Wilson’s goofy demeanour does endear. The by-the-numbers plot still works somehow, and the underlying message – that our elders should be treated with respect and as still-valuable members of society – is put across without too much sermonising. Cassel and Stanton are a pleasure to watch (Stanton should do more comedy while he can), there’s a couple of good sight gags, and Ferrell contributes a great cameo.
Rating: 5/10 – in school grade terms, The Wendell Baker Story earns a C- and a recommendation to do better; lacklustre for the most part but amusing enough to save it from being a complete dud.