At once insouciantly laid back and beguilingly loony, “The Wendell Baker Story” plays like a playful throwback to those shambling shaggy-dog comedies and dramedies of the 1970s – think “Rancho Deluxe,” “Kid Blue” or “92 in the Shade” – treasured as cult faves by many movie buffs with a major jones for cinema of the Polyester Era. There’s definite sleeper potential for Luke Wilson’s triple-threat effort as scripter, co-director and star if savvy distrib can figure a way to market hard-to-categorize pic. Ancillary biz should be pleasing for all parties involved.
Pic is very much a family affair, with Luke sharing directorial duties with brother Andrew Wilson, and sharing screen time with brother Owen Wilson (perfectly cast against type as a comically venal baddie). Not surprisingly, Luke saves much of the funniest funny business in his casually constructed scenario for himself. But he’s also generous about sharing the wealth with vet character actors Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassel and Kris Kristofferson, and younger co-stars Eva Mendes, Eddie Griffin and Jacob Vargas.
Filmed in and around Austin, “The Wendell Baker Story” recounts the misadventures of title character, an eternally optimistic con artist who tries to fulfill big-time dreams with small-time schemes. Wendell (Luke Wilson) comes off as relentlessly ingratiating in his snappy sales patter while selling counterfeit driver’s licenses to undocumented migrant workers along the Tex-Mex border. (He proudly claims Jimmy Smits and Salma Hayek among past customers for his fake I.D.’s) But even Wendell can’t smooth-talk his way out of a prison sentence when he’s busted during an undercover sting.
Wendell makes the best of his time behind bars, breezing through his sentence with an attitude that suggests frat-house exuberance more than hard-time endurance. (Biggest laugh: He casually establishes a live-and-let-live truce between black inmates and Aryan Brotherhood types.) In a characteristically ambitious move, he frequents the prison library to teach himself the rudiments of hotel management.
Once he returns to the outside world, however, even the ever-chipper Wendell finds reasons to frown. Reyes (Vargas), his former partner-in-crime, has gone straight (reluctantly) at the insistence of his wife. And Doreen (Mendes), Wendell’s former girlfriend, has opted to pursue a more stable relationship with grocery owner Dave Bix (a hilariously hot-tempered cameo by unbilled Will Ferrell).
Fortuitously, Wendell gets a shot at redemption when he lands a post-prison position at Shady Grove, a seedy retirement hotel where head nurse Neil King (Owen Wilson) rules as a casually cruel yet hazily focused tyrant. Assuming no one would believe the testimony of an easily framed ex-con grifter, Neil tries to enlist Wendell in a scam involving Medicare payments and forced labor. But Wendell decides to cast his lot instead with three of the hotel’s “guests” – shamelessly frisky Boyd (Cassel) and Skip (Stanton) and mysteriously reclusive Nasher (Kristofferson), with all three thesps doing vivid, idiosyncratic work.
Proceeding at the amiable pace of a cheery stoner on a Sunday afternoon stroll, “The Wendell Baker Story” is a loose-knit, character-driven comedy that percolates with good-vibe amusement, often earning industrial-strength guffaws with sneaky one-liners and tossed-off non-sequiturs.
The co-directing Wilson siblings smartly refrain from pushing anything too hard or too often, making the unpredictable eruptions of straight-faced absurdity all the more effective.
Luke Wilson is extremely engaging in lead role, even when (or maybe that should be especially when) Wendell evidences self-confidence that appears entirely unjustified. Owen Wilson nonchalantly steals several scenes with a little help from Eddie Griffin as Neil’s none-too-bright partner in crime. Mendes and Vargas round out the cast with appealing supporting turns.
Eclectic mix of pop and country tunes on soundtrack – ranging from Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” to Stanton’s rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” – enhances overall mood of free-form larkiness. Other tech credits are pro.