January 30, 2004
Fan Letter: Owen Wilson

Did Eli just say he was on mescaline? "I did indeed. Very much so."

Our long, cold, Owen Wilson-less winter has finally ended: today, Owen hits the screen with The Big Bounce. Reviews indicate that the film is pretty lame, but everyone speaks highly of Owen, so that's one reason to see it.

A remake of the 1969 Elmore Leonard-adapted piffle starring Ryan O'Neal, The Big Bounce boasts the sort of checkered parentage that births so many films these days. Directed by George Armitage, who started his career writing Gas-s-s, a druggy dollop of dreck for Roger Corman, but who's gone on to direct some great, dark comedies like Miami Blues (which he adapted for the screen) and Grosse Pointe Blank, one of the best comedies of the 90s. (Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank are both "daytime noirs": mostly brightly lit comedies about conflicted, charismatic psychos.)

Big Bounce's other daddy is billionaire Hollywood hanger-on Steve Bing, who most recently wrote and produced the "slightly-better-than-a-stick-in-the-eye" comedy Kangaroo Jack, starring a rapping, CGI-'roo and the fat kid from Stand by Me. As embarrassing as Kangaroo Jack is, Bing's highest profile, biggest budget production so far has been Elizabeth Hurley's bastard child, Damian.

But forget all that: If we're gonna see Big Bounce, we're gonna see it for Owen. The Wonderful Wilson boys get a lot of press and love from fans: The ladies love Luke, the freaks sweat Andrew "Futureman", but everyone's gotta admit, Owen is the genius of the family.

With partner Wes Anderson, Owen cowrote Bottle Rocket, and played Dignan, a character with one of the best names in recent movie history. After that, he cowrote Rushmore and made a cameo (in a photograph) as Edward Applebee, the semi-legendary deceased free spirit who looms over the entire absurd, wistful love triangle at the center of the film.

Then came The Royal Tenenbaums, which he cowrote and starred in as Eli Cash, a Dickensian-named novelist/mountebank who loved Gwyneth Paltrow's Margot Tenenbaum almost as much as he loved mescaline. Here's an excerpt from Eli's hilariously tedious, self-important, Cormac McCarthy-style novel Old Custer ("everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is...maybe he didn't?"):

The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. "Vamanos, amigos," he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.

In addition to the good work with Anderson, Owen killed as the philosophical space cadet supermodel Hansel in Zoolander. Hansel's good-natured self-absorption and phony spiritual yearning were the ultimate parody of Hollywood vanity: "Do I know what product I'm selling? No. Do I know what I'm doing today? No. But I'm here, and I'm gonna give it my best shot," he tells an interviewer at one point. That sounds a lot like Bob Harris's (Bill Murray) interactions with his Japanese handlers in Lost in Translation, only more upbeat.

When other actors are called upon to do parodies of "stars", they often curdle their own self-loathing into nasty, unsympathetic characters (hello, entire cast of The Anniversary Party), but Owen shows us that narcissism and niceness aren't entirely mutually exclusive. (Owen's dream role: Bill Clinton, the early years. Maybe Hurley-inseminater/producer/confirmed F.O.B., Steve Bing can hook that up.)

Owen toned down his natural charisma and went serious as the nicest serial killer you could ever hope to meet in The Minus Man, and he was excellent as the ex-fiance from heaven, Kevin in Meet the Parents. Kevin was another gentle parody of vanity, this time the vanity of new money: "I'd love to find time to do some volunteer work. Just the other day I saw a golden retriever, he had like a gimp, ya know I just wish I could have done something" he says with a completely straight face. (Kevin's description of his state of the art kitchen is exactly the sort of banal, consumerist house pride Edward Norton's 'Narrator' raged against in Fight Club or that Rob Walker critiques week in and week out in his The New York Times Magazine column 'Consumed'.)

Owen's relaxed, slightly stoned delivery and un-showy improvisations make him a natural foil to overcooked hams like Jackie Chan, Eddie Murphy, and (I hate to say it, but it's sometimes true) Ben Stiller. Owen always reminds me of a grown-up, more relaxed "Groovin' Gary" from Trent Harris's Beaver Trilogy, an eager-to-please goofball with an infectious grin. ("Groovin' Gary" clip here).

What Owen radiates, more than anything, is the fun he's having while making movies: Big Bounce was shot in Hawaii, Owen learned to surf: how much fun was that? Look at the guy's face, and you'll see.

He'll next be seen in Starsky & Hutch opposite Ben Stiller in theaters March 5th. Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic (starring Owen, but cowritten this time by Brooklyn's own Noah Baumbach) can't come out soon enough. The Wendell Baker Story, which he cowrote with brother Luke (who co-directed with brother Andrew) should be coming out sometime this year.

Skip The Big Bounce (Steve Bing has enough money, thank you very much) and rent the Criterion Collection DVD of The Royal Tenenbaums tonight.

Previous, embarrassingly gushy fan letters from low culture: Tracy Morgan

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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