Owen Wilson's Arrested Development
People talk about "courageous" performances all the time, though it's doubtful that actors are really any braver than, say, firemen, policemen or nurses. Still, it must have taken some guts for Owen Wilson to stand up and present an Oscar this year. A worldwide audience of up to a billion people flashing back to headlines about the star's suicide attempt last August.
It was shocking news - suicides often are - and especially because Wilson would seem to be living the dream. He's earning $10 million a picture. He's a blond, blue-eyed golden boy, with a tight-knit family and support group including brothers Luke and Andrew; director and sometime co-writer Wes Anderson; and frequent costars Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn.
And then there's his persona, which is laid-back, West coast, let-the-good-times-roll. Stiller might fume and fret, but Owen just shrugs off misfortune. He's a stoner, a loafer, a beach bum, a slacker. If this guy's depressed, what hope is there for the rest of us?
It's futile - and tacky - to speculate about what may have led Wilson to such a drastic act, but we're foolish if we take a star's personality at face value. In any case, Wilson is hardly the first comic actor to wrestle with his demons.
His first film, which he wrote with his college buddy Wes Anderson as a short in 1994 and which became a feature two years later, begins with Wilson's character, Dignan, breaking his best friend (played by Owen's brother Luke) out of an mental hospital - although gung-ho Dignan is clearly the more certifiable of the two, a loose cannon who sets off on a crime spree of sorts (they rob a book store) for no more pressing reason than to fight off terminal apathy. The ending, too, reveals a melancholy in Dignan that he won't share with his friends.
Wilson wrote himself nothing more than a bit part in Rushmore (1998), but there's something of him in precocious Max Fischer's single-minded denial of reality. Like Dignan, Max is an impossible dreamer; that's his charm and his biggest flaw.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is a comedy about prodigious failure in which a trio of gifted siblings succumbs to paranoia and despair in their late 20s/early 30s. Owen played Eli Cross, a maverick Tenenbaum-wannabe, and a bad writer with good sales figures. (Brother Luke played the suicidal Richie Tenenbaum.)
By this time Owen was well on the way to becoming a movie star in his own right, though he probably wouldn't have taken much pride from his involvement in Anaconda, Armageddon and The Haunting, box-office hits that were rubbished by the critics.
He didn't get a script credit on Anderson's last two films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, but again (and again) he's cast as the unhappy heir - as Steve's alleged illegitimate son in the first, and as the older brother in the latter, grieving his father, angry with his mom, and bandaged and bruised after a suicidal motorcycle accident.
These are very funny movies, but they're inescapably rooted in unhappiness: in midlife crisis, loneliness and bereavement. All the youthful promise we see in Max Fisher curdles into the numbing sense of failure we find in the Bill Murray roles. Caught in the middle, Owen's boyish men are either fixated on an impossible goal, or they're listless and adrift.
If these represent his most nuanced performances, Wilson's work for other filmmakers is more cavalier, more of a goof, and the reason he's so popular. He hit his groove in 2000-2001 with Shanghai Noon, Meet The Parents, and Zoolander. In each case, Wilson was sharing the spotlight with a more established star (Jackie Chan and Ben Stiller), and there's a very relaxed, free quality to his playing - you can tell he was enjoying himself. There's a zest in these movies that begins to deflate by the time their mostly mediocre sequels and rematches come along.
Is he always going to be the sideman, or will Wilson step up to the plate and impose himself on a movie in the way that Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey or Steve Carell have? This week's disappointing Drillbit Taylor doesn't offer many clues - it's a lead role, but only if you discount the three kids he's babysitting. Trouble is, it's Wilson who needs to grow up, he's been playing the overgrown child for too long now. It's time for this very talented writer and actor to move onwards and upwards.Tom Charity email@example.com
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