A quirky, character-driven throwback to all those lovable, yet meandering '70s flicks, The Wendell Baker Story arrives at a time when people are itching for a large, big-budgeted special effects spectacular. This film is not that. However, it does reunite brothers Luke and Owen Wilson for the first time since they shared the same big screen in Wes Anderson's 2001 pic The Royal Tenenbaums. To make it even more of a family affair, the eldest Wilson brother Andrew helps the younger Luke direct, while the result ends up falling somewhere between Bottle Rocket and Rancho Deluxe; a neatly-wrapped Texas meal that comes with enough mouth-watering sides to keep your belly full as your mind begins to wonder.
Wendell Baker (Luke Wilson) is a low-maintenance conman whose friendly, good-natured optimism hinders more than it helps him; so much so that all he ends up doing is conning himself. Knee-deep in his latest scam (which involves driving to the border to sell fake Texas drivers licenses to illegal immigrants), Wendell figures he has it all worked out. Not to mention there's a little lady (Eva Mendes) waiting for him back at home, if he remembers to pick her up from work on time. He's such a free-spirited, "everything will turn out just fine" moron that even when the feds bust him, he shakes off a lengthily prison sentence as if he accidentally forgot to pick up a bottle of water on the way to the gym. But that's Wendell. The way he sees it, life is too short to feel pain. But when his sweet-as-pie girlfriend Doreen decides to ditch Wendell because he's too busy mending rifts between the blacks and the skinheads while in prison, the old "you don't know what you got until it's gone" theme hits him harder than a bull at a rodeo.
Upon his release from prison, Wendell is sent to work at the Shady Grove retirement hotel; run by the slimy Neil King (Owen Wilson) and his money-hungry sidekick McTeague (Eddie Griffin). Seeing as it's the kind of place where the elderly are treated more like caged animals, the Shady Grove community welcomes our friendly hero with open arms. It's there that Wendell meets Skip (Harry Dean Stanton) and Boyd (Seymour Cassel); two old timers looking for a little excitement before they permanently "retire". And you can't forget Nasher, the no-nonsense quiet type -- he spends most of his time in a darkened room watching silent Westerns on a pull-down movie screen. As Wendell begins to bond with the old folks, learning about their lives -- the way they've loved, the way they've hurt -- he begins to spot the faults within himself and, with help from his new friends, sets out to win back the girl of his dreams.
Ah, but Doreen has moved on and moved in with another guy, Dave Bix (as played by a relatively tame Will Ferrell). It doesn't matter much to us; Mendes plays Doreen with as much energy as a cow eating grass. It's almost as if the Wilson boys directed her by throwing out the same two commands: smile and look pretty. She's not the kind of girl you fight for; apart from a cute face, there's nothing there. I imagine it'd be like dating an attractive tree stump. Nevertheless, she's the only person that's ever fully supported Wendell's idiotic endeavors, which makes it hard for the man to let go. That said, Wendell's anger-fueled conversations with Dave are fun to watch, if only because it's impossible not to laugh at a pissed off Ferrell; the guy just oozes hilarity. Not surprisingly, some of the pic's finer moments belong to Dean Stanton and Cassel who, having launched their careers in films similar to this one, know exactly how to get more bang for your buck. One scene finds the two gents seducing a duo of sexually-charged teens at a corner market in which Cassel takes the opportunity to tell one of the lucky ladies that he can find her G-spot in under 10 seconds.
Although it's a contemporary set film, the Wilson boys invoke a sense of nostalgia at every turn. All of the comedy here rests in the character's themselves. Nothing is physical; no one falls down or gets slapped in the face. If you don't work to find the humor in it all, then there's a pretty good chance you just won't get it. The script's plot holes are intentional, and if you sit there saying, "C'mon, none of this would happen in the real world," you missed the point. For someone who's always seemed to phone in their performances, Luke Wilson has written a character for himself that's quite the departure from his previous work. Wendell Baker has energy; he has a spark -- it's like the quiet kid who finally came out of his shell, and in doing so surprised the heck out of everyone around him. This film is his baby; he wrote it, directed it and nurtured it. And for someone who's usually overshadowed by his brother Owen in the comedic department, Luke proves here that he has a ton to add to the table.
With the exception of Mendes, the rest of the cast do their jobs well. No one (not even Ferrell) overpowers the film; they each tone it down to a level that's not even close to being over-the-top. Tack on a few genuine moments of sincerity, and The Wendell Baker Story goes down like a piece of juicy watermelon on a hot Texas day. Those going in looking for Wes Anderson-type shtick won't necessarily find it here; this film belongs to the Wilson family. It's sweet, charming and predictable, but that's okay. The way I see it, a small piece of apple pie after a big-budgeted meal goes a long way these days.