Has ironic detachment become the new sincerity? It would be easy to call The Wendell Baker Story the scrappy, quirky tale of an outlaw-dude con man, only that description leaves out its key selling point: The entire movie comes at you in air quotes. Luke Wilson, who wrote and codirected and also plays the breezy scoundrel hero, bounces from one predicament to the next (selling fake IDs to Mexican immigrants; working at a ”retirement hotel”), never showing the tiniest variation in mood or inflection, never altering his life-is-a-late-night-comedy-sketch obliviousness. He’s Attitude Man, cruising along on his smugly self-amused ”charm.” In prison, when Wendell stares at his best girl (Eva Mendes) through the Plexiglas and says, ”I’d take a month in solitary for just one kiss,” the romanticism is so mocking it’s absurd, so absurd it’s hi-larious (as opposed to, you know, funny), and therefore the film’s version of a heartfelt gesture. Or something.
The Wendell Baker Story has been kicking around since 2005 at festivals, where it has won a bit of a following, making me one of the few who don’t ”get” it. I enjoyed Owen Wilson’s performance as a venal rest-home official — his line readings have bite, as opposed to Luke’s mild solipsistic droop — and Seymour Cassel and Harry Dean Stanton both perform with grizzled gumption. But The Wendell Baker Story just feels like an attempt to rebottle the postmodern fizz of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. I wish instead they’d put a stopper in it.