The Wendell Baker Story

2007, Movie, PG-13, 99 mins

Review

WENDELL BAKER STORY, THE
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This offbeat comedy about a fast-talking Texas sharpie who finds his calling at an old-folks home is strictly a Wilson family affair. Luke Wilson wrote the screenplay, stars along with his brother, Owen, and shared directing duties with their lesser-known sibling, Andrew. The result is insider-ish — you can almost hear the brothers sniggering at jokes not everyone will get — but a great supporting cast of old pros makes it worth a look.

A nice way of describing Wendell Baker (Luke Wilson) would be to say he's a good ol' boy who's held onto his youthful idealism without remaining entirely innocent. A less generous description would make him out to be an oily swindler in a seersucker suit, whose latest scheme involves selling fake Texas state driver's licenses to recently arrived illegal immigrants. Wendell's perfectly respectable girlfriend, Doreen (Eva Mendes), wishes he'd get himself a real job, but she's in love and willing to put up with his immaturity even though Marianne (Heather Kafka), her coworker at the Austin Department of Power, warns that "dreamers" like Wendell tend to run when they run out of dreams to chase. Doreen, however, has a change of heart after Wendell and his partner in petty crime, Reyes (Jacob Vargas), are busted by the Feds. Reyes gets off, but Wendell is sentenced to a stretch in Huntsville Prison, where he makes himself right at home with his fellow felons. To Wendell, prison is just another adventure, but to Doreen it's a sign of something more serious — his utter unsuitability as a life partner. She stops visiting and starts sending back his letters, leading Wendell to rethink his life. Newly determined to make something of himself and woo Doreen away from her new beau — dull grocer David (Will Ferrell) — Wendell begins studying the art of hotel management. When he's finally paroled, the prison gets Wendell a job at Shady Groves, a gloomy, state-run retirement home overseen by sleazy nurse Neil King (Owen Wilson). Along with his sidekick McTeague (Eddie Griffin), King is running a scam that shocks even Wendell: They're faking residents' deaths, selling their medication on the black market and shipping them north to work as slaves on the Oklahoma farm run by Neil's awful mother, Wanda (Jo Harvey Allen). The reformed Wendell enlists the help of residents Boyd Fullbright (Seymour Cassel), Skip Summers (Harry Dean Stanton) and the mysterious L.R. Nasher (Kris Kristofferson) to rescue the "deceased" from Wanda King's farm.

Luke Wilson had the idea to write a movie around the kind of charming antiheroes familiar to fans of filmmakers like Hal Ashby (THE LAST DETAIL) and Bob Rafelson (FIVE EASY PIECES). Despite a terribly conceived coda, Luke and his brothers have mostly succeeded, thanks in large part to sharp dialogue, a solid vintage soundtrack (Rick Nelson's "Garden Party" features prominently) and some great older actors — Cassel is a particular standout — from the heyday of American cinema. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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