He’s back on screens this week in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, so now seems like a good time to take a quick look back over Owen Wilson’s career to date and see where the hits and misses lie. Bursting onto our screens alongside his brother Luke and ol’ buddy Wes Anderson (with whom he’s done most of his best work), Wilson climbed quickly up the Hollywood ladder, specialising in light comedy and projecting a breezy insouciance that works brilliantly against more uptight foils. Here are the best of his roles to date, and a few that are not quite so good…
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
This would earn a place atop any Owen Wilson list just for his ability to deliver the line, “The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. "Vámonos, amigos," he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.” As the wannabe intellectual and irresponsible junkie friend of the Tenenbaums, he adds a touch of mania to a film that might otherwise be over-mannered, and of course plays a key role in the final reconciliation of the Tenenbaum family, even if not in the way you might predict. Dressed in cowboy style and surrounded by some of the worst art ever to afflict the eyeball, he’s not the star of this thoroughly-ensemble effort (although he did co-write the film with director Wes Anderson), but he is one of the reasons it’s an enduring delight.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Zoolander (2001)
Truly, Wilson was so hot right now in 2001. Straight after the Tenenbaums hit came his glorious turn as dim-witted, so-hot-right-now male model Hansel in Ben Stiller’s wonderfully witless take on the fashion world. His ability to sell complete innocence and a profound sense of stupidity (“The files are in the computer?!”) without ever losing his charm has never been better demonstrated, and his account of his peyote-fuelled adventures (“So I’m rappelling down Mount Vesuvius…”) is one of the great comic asides. Once again, he shows a propensity for fringed leather jackets, but this time rounds it out with a multi-ethnic troop of impeccably cool hangers-on, no grand plan at all, and the ability, in extremis to “go monk” and miraculously remove his pants without taking his trousers off. It’s hard to argue with that.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Bottle Rocket (1996)
Proof that the Wilson persona hit the screen more-or-less fully formed, this debut he shared with Wes Anderson (built from a short film the two had made together two years before) casts him as a big dreamer who doesn’t quite have the talent or the toughness to back up his own schemes. Planning a big heist to impress landscape gardener and criminal mastermind Mr Henry (James Caan), he is persistently running ahead of morose friend Anthony (Luke Wilson, who gives good morose) and quiet Bob (Robert Musgrove) in his puppyish enthusiasm for crime and his frustration when he’s not met with equal energy from his friends. Still, it’s his basic good-nature that sets him apart from other wannabe hoodlums, with both Anderson and Wilson clearly sharing some degree of faith in human nature, and an admiration for those who swing for ridiculous fences and still come up smiling.
RECOMMENDED: Shanghai Noon (2000)
It would take a die-hard Chris Tucker fan to dispute that this is Jackie Chan’s best American outing. An East-meets-West cowboy pastiche, this sees Wilson playing one of his trademark roles, another criminal who’s more style than substance, more gregarious than gangster. His easygoing ineptitude is a source of continuous frustration to the more efficient, vastly more focused Chon Wang (Chan). So laidback he’s frequently horizontal, Wilson’s Roy O’Bannon cemented that mixture of Texan cowboy and California surfer dude that’s become something of a calling card – but it never worked better than against the disciplined Chan, who bounces off it nicely. He also serves as a great audience surrogate, standing properly gaping at Chan’s clearly impossible physical prowess and reminding us through his own corresponding incompetence just how good the dynamo superstar really is.
RECOMMENDED: Midnight In Paris (2011)
Woody Allen may not be as consistently brilliant as he was at his peak, but he still hits more highs than lows, and this is decidedly one of the highs. Playing a character who’s a little closer to his own life than usual, Wilson is affable screenwriter Gil, who hopes to abandon his Hollywood career and write novels instead, much to the horror of his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). A series of midnight walks take him mysteriously back through Paris, first to the 1920s and then even further back into the Belle Epoque. Along the way there’s love and loss and lessons in literature from giants of the past. Wilson’s general equanimity to the adventure helps sell the bizarro premise, but he retains enough excitement at the prospect to draw the audience into the world with him. Decidedly one of the most likeable Allen stand-ins we’ve seen in a while.
FOR THE FAN: Wedding Crashers (2005)
Paired with fellow “Frat Pack” member Vince Vaughn, and once again with McAdams, this is one of the biggest hits of Wilson’s career, but perhaps not his most subtle or intelligent. As one of two wedding crashers who hit other people’s nuptials in search of a good time, he sells the concept beautifully, and there’s great chemistry with Vaughn. What’s nice to see is that it’s not Wilson doing all the enthusiastic chivvying here: Vaughn gives as good as he gets in pushing his friend along when he seems down, the pair less mismatched buddies and more brothers from another mother. That said, a few overly familiar set-ups and uninspired gags hamper both stars, and this one never quite flies. It’s decent Friday night entertainment, but never quite up to the standard of Wilson’s funniest work.
ONE TO MISS: Drillbit Taylor (2008)
Five minutes after this film ends, it’s almost impossible to remember what happened in it. Wilson himself is as lackadaisical and likeable as ever, but he has almost nothing to work with. His sense of timing and ability to deliver nonsensical lines is as spot-on as ever, but it’s a film that just screams out for someone equally charismatic to bounce off, and there’s essentially nothing there, Wilson howling into a void of pleasant-but-barely-there young stars, underwritten adult roles and been-there plot developments. There’s a bit of competition for this slot, in fact, from similar films like The Big Bounce and I Spy, but Drillbit wins for sheer unmemorability. Let’s hope that Midnight In Paris reminds directors what Wilson is capable of in slightly more dramatic roles. That, or just Twolander.