‘The Wendell Baker Story’: Small Tale, By Kurt Loder

Luke Wilson's bland ambition underpowers a listless slacker comedy. Also: 'Paris, je t'aime' and 'Severance.'

Despite the long nap “The Wendell Baker Story” has been taking since it was completed nearly three years ago — a slumber disturbed only by occasional film-festival day trips — it’s still a very sleepy movie. Luke Wilson, who wrote the script and co-directed with his older brother, Andrew Wilson, stars as a 30-something neo-slacker (in Austin, where else?) whose maniacally cheerful outlook on everything has no basis in what passes for his life. After his latest business enterprise — selling counterfeit driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — lands him in prison, his long-suffering girlfriend, Doreen (Eva Mendes), finally decides it’s time move on. We know how she feels. Even at this early point, we’re starting to think maybe we should go with her.

But no, we’re stuck in jail with Wendell. We spend far too long watching him chuckle and jive and foment brotherhood among his fellow inmates, while at the same time nurturing a new career brainstorm — now he wants to run a high-class hotel. When he’s finally paroled and given a job at a state-run old folks’ home, he sees this as a first step in pursuit of that dream. But the home is run by two cold-hearted scam artists, Neil (Owen Wilson — hey bro!) and McTeague (Eddie Griffin), and their only interest in their elderly charges is ripping off their Medicare payments. But warm-hearted Wendell wants to help the resident geezers, chief among them the impish Skip (Harry Dean Stanton), the randy Boyd (Seymour Cassel) and the mysterious Nasher (Kris Kristofferson). When Wendell starts trying to lively up the dismal institution — turning on some music and throwing open the shades to let the sunshine in — Neil decides the newbie has to go. Wendell doesn’t realize this at first because he’s run into Doreen again, and discovered that she has a new boyfriend, an imperious blowhard named Bix (Will Ferrell — the gang’s all here!). Can Wendell win Doreen back? Foil Neil and McTeague? Find a high-class hotel to run? Do ya think?

This is a faux feel-good movie, and its hipster insincerity and rote sentimentalism are a dispiriting mix. Owen Wilson (cast against type, with slicked-back hair and a stubbly goatee) and Eddie Griffin are fun to watch; and Kris Kristofferson, now 70 years old, has a rich, crusty presence. But Harry Dean Stanton, who’s 80, is worryingly frail; and when he and 72-year-old Seymour Cassel start rutting around with a pair of 16-year-old girls, whatever goodwill the picture has built up goes creeping out the window. (An earlier scene, involving Wendell and a little boy at a urinal, is similarly icky.) The picture’s other problems are more central. Luke Wilson can be a deft second banana, but he still seems too bland to be a romantic lead; and Eva Mendes has no range at all as an actress — she veers wildly between pleasant and nice, and when she delivers a line like “He’s a dreamer, I know, but I’m part of his dream,” you kind of want to brain her. And then move on to some even more smack-worthy folks higher up in the credits.

“Paris, je t’aime”: Gallic Symbols

This frequently enchanting omnibus movie — a collection of 18 short films set in various resonant precincts of the City of Light — radiates international star power. Among the many directors are the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, Gurinder Chadha, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón, Wes Craven, Tom Tykwer and Walter Salles. The actors include Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Nick Nolte, Emily Mortimer, Willem Dafoe and Catalina Sandino Moreno. Most of the stories in which they figure are sharply observed vignettes, some of them sumptuous fantasies, others obliquely touching in unexpected ways. A young American encounters a gorgeous vampire in the night-shrouded Quartier de la Madeleine. A shy tourist suddenly becomes the plaything of hot-blooded lovers in the Tuileries Metro station. A long-married man and woman rekindle their ardor in the strip clubs of Pigalle, and a misunderstood street mime finds love in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. And in Alexander Payne’s luminous concluding episode, a lonely middle-aged sightseer (the wonderful Margo Martindale, narrating her own story in winsomely stilted phrasebook French) gazes out across the glorious city and realizes she’s finally found love — in Paris itself. Vous aussi, possibly.

‘Severance’: Tired Blood

This failed attempt at a horror comedy is one of those rare movies with virtually nothing to recommend it. I only note it here as a consumer service for those who might be misled into expecting it to be scary or funny, or both. It’s not. Not very, anyway.

The British director, Christopher Smith, whose first film was the 2004 Brit horror cheapie “Creep,” co-wrote the script, and it’s plump with built-in boredom. In the production notes, Smith positions the story as a combination of “The Office” and “Deliverance,” although he pretty surely had “Hostel” in mind, too. The movie opens with seven people in a bus: the president of an international arms corporation and six of his top sales execs. They’re on their way to have a “team-building” weekend (think paint-ball warfare) at the company’s luxury lodge in the alluring hinterlands of Hungary. The place they finally arrive at, however, is a flamboyantly decrepit edifice that might as well have “Abandon Hope” chiseled over its front door. Naturally they decide to stay.

The characters are types — a hunky guy, a shlubby guy, a druggy guy, a cute girl, a wisecracking girl — and the awful things they undergo at the hands of some evil lurkers outside the lodge are (apart from a funny bear-trap episode) strictly generic: amputation, decapitation, evisceration, death by flame-thrower. The actors are fine (well, most of them), but the horror lacks fiendish invention; and the comedy (shlubby guy finds meat pie just lying around in the kitchen, and decides to serve it for dinner) has no transgressive kick. (A landmine gag is amusing, if overlong; but the sight of someone trying to store a severed limb in a mini-fridge is, at this point in horror history, insufficiently uproarious.) Any hope one might have for the film in the beginning — when an ominous mood is quirkily undercut by sprightly music — quickly dissipates as the low-energy proceedings unfold. Very soon you realize the picture is not going to get any better. And the fact that it couldn’t get any worse is no compensation.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Wendell Baker Story,” “Paris, je t’aime,” and “Severance.”

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