Pacing rooms and parsing words


Luke Wilson hides his expressive eyes behind a pair of shades in The Wendell Baker Story.

Some Wilsons are anxious, others elated as their film, set in a nursing home, opens at SXSW

Luke Wilson looks worried. It's hard to tell if this is because it is opening night at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and the curtain is about to rise on his new film The Wendell Baker Story, or if the furrowed brow and vexed eyes are his natural demeanor. Whatever the case, Wilson has used those eyes on the big screen to expressive effect for close to a decade now. Gazing into a mirror in The Royal Tenenbaums, those two sad orbs reflected a world of hurt and made us believe when his character Richie Tenenbaum sliced his wrists. In Bottle Rocket, after receiving the heave-ho from his true love Inez, Wilson's eyes communicated dejection more credibly than perhaps any other bodily organ in the annals of recent film. But those eyes are capable of more than radiating pain. One of the best moments in Bottle Rocket occurs when Luke finally elicits an "I love you" from Inez and performs an impromptu dance of pure joy that forces us to unfurrow our own brows with him.

The progression from pain to transcendence that Luke navigated in Bottle Rocket works backward in The Wendell Baker Story, in which he plays the title role, a decidedly confident and untroubled con man who furrows nary a brow even after getting thrown into federal prison for producing fake IDs for illegal immigrants. Unbearable angst descends, of course, but only after Wendell's girlfriend (Eva Mendes) decides to move on with her life, having had enough of his imperturbable and unromantic optimism. Love pangs notwithstanding, Wendell Baker's buoyancy is a far cry from Richie Tenenbaum's despair. As Wilson tells me a day after the film's premiere, Wendell Baker is also a departure from Luke Wilson. "I wanted to write something where I felt the guy's a lot different from me," he says. "Someone who wouldn't let anything people say about him bother him."

A day later, Wilson is striding around a hotel room, unshaven and restless, and he still looks worried. Perhaps a late night spent celebrating coupled with the media onslaught have contributed to his apparent unease. His brother Andrew Wilson is here as well, sitting on a couch and exuding optimism about the film he co-directed with his brother. Filmed in Texas, the independently produced The Wendell Baker Story was a stock family affair. Brother Owen, blissful drawl intact, plays an evil nurse nearly as crooked as his own nose, mom Laura contributed still photographs, and uncle Joe served as an "all-purpose adviser," securing such items as a vintage World War II airplane for Kris Kristofferson's character to pilot across the Austin skyline. Wendell's dog is even played by Wilson's own dog Brother, who is pacing around the hotel room with his master as we speak.

Given the familial alliance, it seems natural for Luke and Andrew to have filmed The Wendell Baker Story on location in Austin and Wimberley. The brothers Wilson grew up in Dallas, and Owen and Andrew attended the University of Texas. Often, the movie plays like a loving montage of familiar Austin sights, from the glacial grandeur of the Frost Bank Tower to the bridge over Town Lake. As for working with his brothers, Luke says the on-set dynamics mirrored those in real life. "We're basically kinda friends," he says, and grinning slyly, adds, "Friends that you can offend over and over again."

Brother Owen plays a scheming head nurse at a retirement home.

The story follows an incarcerated Baker as he undergoes a moral transformation, makes parole, and lands a job at a retirement home. There, he attempts to foil the corrupt management while winning back his estranged flame, who in the meantime has shacked up with a typically uproarious Will Ferrell. Irreverent humor abounds. In one scene, an unusually menacing Ferrell clutches his crotch, mouths expletives, and trashes his own grocery store to intimidate Baker. In another, Owen's character delivers a tasteless, tossed-off elegy for a recently deceased resident of the retirement home. "I've never had cancer..." he begins with trademark insouciance.

Despite the script's irreverence, Wilson has managed to pen some sincere meditations on serious themes such as loss and death. Hollywood old-timers Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton, and Seymour Cassel, who play residents in the retirement home, often serve as conduits for these reflections. At one point, a grizzled Kristofferson looks out on a setting sun and muses on the unique vantage point of old age. "When you're like me," he says, "and when it's late in the game, yesterday, today, and tomorrow are all in the same room." In another scene, Stanton lies in bed facing the wall, despondent over the death of his wife.

"I wasn't really conscious of doing it that much," Wilson says of anchoring the script with weightier material. "It's one of those things where you can have those feelings if you're our age."

Wilson has now stopped his restless peregrinations, coming to rest relatively calmly in a chair. As he talks about "those feelings," he fixes those overwrought eyes firmly on his inquisitor. Up close and in person, that familiar look of apprehension seems to derive not from a sense of insecurity, but rather from a curiosity for how the world is unfolding around him in all its hurt and joy, a sort of better-or-worse immersion in everything life has to offer.

Wilson began working on the script for The Wendell Baker Story in 1999, adding to it sporadically in his free time. Although he has written short stories in the past, this was his first attempt at screenwriting. Four years later, he began assembling family members and friends to bring the script to life. Both the schedule and budget were tight; Luke and Andrew had only 35 days to shoot 225 scenes. The result is an offbeat, episodic comedy with melancholy flourishes and a loose feel that reminds one of a gathering of close friends, which it virtually was. Now that the film has been completed, the co-directing Wilson brothers seem to have somewhat differing opinions on the finished product.

"I'm really pleased," says Andrew, smiling widely.

Wilson's answer is a bit more apprehensive: "Looking at something that I've worked on so hard for so long, I'm thinking, Should I be worried?"

Judging from the reaction of the Paramount Theater crowd on opening night, Wilson has no reason to be worried. Laughter and applause break out frequently and loudly during the show. People are clearly enjoying themselves. Despite such a warm reception, the following day Wilson still seems to harbor some uncertainty over the film's allure. "We were trying to make something that appealed to us," he concludes.

At least in Austin, what appeals to the Wilson brothers appeals to others as well.

By Brian Chasnoff

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