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The Brothers Grin
Happily Following in Owen's Footsteps, Luke Wilson Makes an Impression

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006; C01

NEW YORK

Of all the Randy Quaids and Beau Bridgeses and Jim Belushis and Jeb Bushes, in walks the man who is our era's most definitive answer to the question: Is there another one like you at home?

Why indeed there is, and he is Luke Wilson, forever the baby bro. He gets paid a little less coin than Owen, and isn't on as many magazine covers, and this unnerves him not in the least. You know him from so many gently-befuddled-boyfriend roles in movies.

In this new one -- "My Super Ex-Girlfriend," a comedy with a sci-fi kick to the groin region, opening tomorrow -- he is repeatedly beaten up by Uma Thurman, who plays a Manhattan superheroine with crazy-lady issues. It's Luke Wilson's biggish chance to open a biggish movie. Uma dangles him from the Statue of Liberty, and throws a badly animated great white shark at him. She leaves dents in his walls and holes in his ceiling and busts his bedframe with her supergasms. In a fit of stereotyped, must-be-her-period rage, she burns the vice president's first name onto his forehead. (You've seen the ads. You get it.)

Lazy late afternoon, a series of interconnected hotel rooms 41 floors above a miserably moist city, and a movie star is being told where to go all day long, with a girl following him around whose job it is to make sure his dark brown, flyaway hair is flying away just so.

His mouth is a sideways apostrophe punctuating a sturdy jaw. His eyes are dopey sweet. He has a small, orangey, Chef Boyardee-colored smudge of sauce on his baby-blue, all-snaps Western shirt, and on him it works. He never claimed to be a stud muffin, and consequently, he does not have the body of one, and paradoxically, this is what makes him one. (Part of being a Wilson brother, or like a Wilson brother, is surrendering to the torso, the beer tummy, the gravity-tas. He never hurries with what he is saying, which is also part of the Wilson thing, that awkward coolness. Some men work really hard to have this demeanor, instead of abs.

"Uh, yeah, a kind of -- yeah," is a quote from him. "I was kinda -- just sort of didn't want to seem like, I don't know, like the guy didn't have an eddddge," is another quote, describing the apparent Stanislavsky method he brought to his part in "My Super Ex-Girlfriend." But it never sounds dumb! It sounds clever, patient, admirably aloof. He is happy and yawny, and so nice.

Bob and Laura Wilson, who made all this, come from comfortable Irish Catholic stock, and left the cute little Massachusetts towns they grew up in (it was "like the rural New England described by Robert Frost," she said in one interview). The Wilsons went to Texas, courtesy of his job with the Scott Paper Co. The boys have said their dad always reminded them of vintage Jack Nicholson, only a tad more effete -- Luke still loves to do impressions of him trying to order a beer at a Texas barbecue joint: "Um, yes, Sonny, I'll -- I'll -- ha-have a Heineken, please," to which big Sonny bellows, "Bud er Bud Layght?" with scorn. Later, he was a public-TV executive. Their mother is an accomplished portrait photographer who worked as Richard Avedon's assistant in the 1970s as he shot his American West pictures.

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson also set about having sons. Back in the '60s and early '70s, they must have been conducting something experimental in their suburban Dallas garage -- something scientific as well as reproductive in theory. They had bubbly beakers and wires hooked up to consoles. Here was their plan:

Let's have just boys, no girls -- just three really cool and quirky and not-so-jocky sons, but let's also have them be human Labradors. People will love them. They need to be funny, and let's work on the voice: It has to be this exact combination of prep-school stoner and John Wayne. We'll send them to St. Mark's, a Dallas prep school where Owen will forever be remembered as the brother who got expelled for swiping a geometry test off a teacher's desk. They'll spend their summers at your mother's back in Massachusetts. They'll do skits in the back yard for the neighbors.

People will want to pet our sons. Owen will get the nickname "the Butterscotch Stallion" from his fans, who will be enraptured by his thrice-broken nose. Luke will go with Drew Barrymore for a while, and then Gwyneth Paltrow for a while, but mostly the world will regard the boys as hapless cads. They will almost always be cast as bachelors, well into their thirties, and the box office will, for a while, reflect a desire to scratch the Wilson Brothers' bellies. Our boys: Let's make them smart, too. Sometimes they'll write intricate, long screenplays for art-house movies, and even direct, and make the scene at earnest film festivals. But let's make them slackers, also. Sometimes they will really phone it in .

They'll grow up and separately be in a lot of remakes of old TV shows -- "Starsky and Hutch," "Charlie's Angels," "I Spy" -- co-starring some combination of Will Ferrell, and/or Vince Vaughn, and/or Ben Stiller, and/or a Wilson brother. Once in a while they will be directed by their longtime buddy, Wes Anderson, in his hyperdetailed and ruminative manner, in the poetic "The Royal Tenenbaums" or "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," or . . . well, Hollywood will figure it out.

It worked.

They bottled it and sold it, and sold it.

The Wilsonian Doctrine

In Wilsonbrother Land, the guy gets the girl, but not always the girl he started out with. Sarah Jessica Parker falls for this. Anna Faris falls for this. Kate Hudson falls for this. The Wilsonbrother has some last-minute epiphany about it all. A recurrent theme is Love Is Funny and Sometimes Ya Just Don't Know.

"I don't give it a lot of thought," Luke Wilson says. "I mean, in the last couple of years, I have. I guess it goes back to the 'Legally Blonde' and 'Charlie's Angels' thing, that there's a kind of pattern there, but the honest truth is I took basically every movie I got offered for years, just 'cause I like to work, and I learned on each movie I worked on, and those were the roles that came my way." He could quit doing those parts, but why? He'll turn 35 in September, and as of now, there aren't a lot of scripts where someone has thought of him as a husband, or a dad. Next he'll be in director Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," a futuristic comedy, and then a thriller with Sarah Jessica Parker called "Vacancy." He'll also play Bobby Ewing in the "Dallas" remake that starts shooting this fall.

"I always had the sense that he's an underutilized, unvalued resource," director Ivan Reitman says of Wilson. "I think it's just by virtue of his good looks that he's gotten to be 'the guy' in a lot of chick movies, where he's the kind of straight guy to the colorful, kooky girl that's in the movie. I wanted to give him the opportunity to rock a little more in a comedy. He's the real deal, he's certainly as funny as his brother Owen. His comedy chops really are born of the same DNA."

Reitman met Wilson when he was producing the 2003 hit "Old School" -- the one where Ferrell, Vaughn and Wilson start a fraternity for the latent and misfit. (A sequel is still in the works.) Reitman actually thinks Wilson has just enough Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart in him to remain with us for a long time: "There's this long line of actors who become icons for America and they all have a kind of boyish, everyday quality. The kind of guy you want as your friend, or the man you want as your lover," he says. "There's just something so goshdarn charming about that, which is what Luke is."

A generation ago, Reitman was drawn to a different kind of shlub, the '70s-style funnyman, back when he was directing "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes" and "Meatballs." Then, the epitome of cool and funny was Bill Murray, or Belushi and Aykroyd.

Among other things, the Wilson brothers could be read as a variation on that. It's what happens when you take little boys to a particular twin cinema in Dallas for a matinee; they grow up and work forward from "Animal House" (which Reitman also produced). Luke remembers where he was when he saw Reitman's earlier films:

" 'Ghostbusters' I saw in '84, so that's like, sixth grade, and I saw it at the U.A. Cine on Yale in Dallas. I was with my friend Bunky, and Owen. And 'Stripes' I saw in Massachusetts in the summertime at this theater in Belmont. Again with Owen, and a few cousins. And 'Animal House,' my dad took me and my brothers to that at the Preston Royal Theater in Dallas. . . .

"I like that Ivan wants to know what we think is funny, like he's watching to see what we would joke about," Wilson says. "In a great way, [Reitman] is like an older coach working with younger players who have a different mentality. I just think it's a good quality, as opposed to being stuck in a way of saying that what was funny back then would be just as funny now."

Wilson seems aware that his comedy style -- and his brother's -- has a sell-by date. Somewhere out there are a couple of exurban, cut-up brothers who have no business seeing R-rated movies, and they will come along and destroy today's Wilsonbrother mojo -- or reinvent it, at least. "I hope they don't sneak in," he says. "I hope they go with their parents, and pay."

Triple Threat

There is a steady girlfriend. She's not a secret, but she's not a celebrity. He says she works in a clothing boutique. Wilson can't imagine how two movie stars manage to keep a relationship going. (Drew? Gwyneth? Exactly.) There is a dog, and his name, either ironically or super-totally-ironically, is Brother. Wilson plays a lot of golf. He hates not working, so he works a lot. And when he's not working, you'll often find him at his brother Owen's pad.

Luke says he was at Owen's house a few weeks ago, hanging out. Owen said he had just received some bad news: Those damn Wayans brothers! "Little Man" (starring Marlon Wayans, directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans, written by Shawn Wayans) will be opening the same day as Owen's big stab at summer comedy, "You, Me & Dupree."

Like any brother, Luke chose to tease Owen: "Yeah, I saw the preview, 'Little Man' looks really good." (On David Letterman a few days later, Luke, promoting "My Super Ex-Girlfriend," will tease that "You, Me & Dupree" doesn't open until Thanksgiving. It opened last week, accepted its predictable drubbing from critics, and took in $21.3 mil, a few hundred thousand dollars behind "Little Man.")

This is actually the first time in Wilsonbrother Land that each has a big movie opening within a week of the other. Every interviewer tries to make something of the competitiveness between them. "I gotta find a better way to answer it because people seem to want to hear about it, but really you just want the best for the other person," Luke says.

Really, it's more a genetic question, about our culture's propensity for siblings. These are not Kennedys, or Bushes -- unless you run a movie studio, in which case, you don't question it, you just sell it. Same if you're a Wilson brother. You get used to seeing your brother or yourself or any of your friends on the covers of magazines. Will Ferrell's on GQ. Owen is on Blender. Luke is a tiny cover line, the "20Q's" subject in this month's Playboy, "And, hey, Vince is on the cover of Us again," he jokes.

You carouse. You hang out. Some of it is filmed. That's all it is.

Only that's not all it is. What got the Wilson brothers where they are was a spate of complete and counterintuitive originality -- "Bottle Rocket," the 1996 film they made with Wes Anderson that charmed Sundance and got remade as a studio film. This was supposed to be their stock in trade: Owen kept writing with Anderson and made "Rushmore," and Luke gave the best performance of his career so far in "The Royal Tenenbaums" as Richie Tenenbaum, the morose tennis pro.

In the past few years, Luke Wilson and the other Wilson brother -- Andrew, the oldest, the beta version, perhaps just as talented, but seen by the world mainly in bit parts -- co-directed a screenplay of Luke's called "The Wendell Baker Story." Luke also starred, as a con artist who works a scheme in a retirement home. Owen plays the bad guy, the head orderly. This at last was the All-Wilson Project. They wanted to give it a '70s comedy feel. Luke's original, longhand screenplay turned out to be more than 250 typewritten pages, twice as long as a movie script should be. Kris Kristofferson and Harry Dean Stanton have big parts. Ferrell does a cameo. Brother the dog played the dog, "and he was great," Luke says. They screened it last year at Austin's South by Southwest film fest.

Either it was totally brilliant or it was barely watchable. You hear both things. It has still not been released, either in theaters or straight-to-video. He crosses his arms and looks only slightly pained to be talking about his baby this way.

"I want it to come out, and I want people to see it," Wilson says simply, offering the excuse that the original financiers went broke and sold their rights to the film, which cost $8 million. "I've just been so through-the-mill with it. It's just a bummer more than anything else."

Why Indeed?

He goes home a lot.

"My dad calls me and asks, 'When are you coming home, when are you coming to visit?' and I'm like, 'Dad, I come back more than anybody I know.' I go back all year, for a few days or a week. I keep a car at my folks' house. And then I get there and they don't really seem to want me around. So I just kind of hang out. Maybe it's a Tex-Mex thing, but I haven't found good Mexican food in L.A., so I just hit the same restaurants. A couple of my oldest, best friends live there. My girlfriend makes fun of me, but all I'll do when I'm in Dallas is drive around, drive around and look at old buildings. I'm like a cop when I go back to Dallas, I just cruise around and point to this and that, and just look.

"I'll say to my girlfriend, 'You want to see the first house I grew up in?' and she's like, 'I see it every trip, Luke.' "

Nevertheless it must be some hallowed ground. It's where they make Wilson Brothers.

And people wonder: Why those guys? "People say that all the time, I'm sure," Wilson affirms. "Why? Whyyyy? Why them? Not even a question, just a statement -- why. "

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