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"The Wendell Baker Story"



The best scene in "The Wendell Baker Story" shows the titular hero (Luke Wilson) getting ready for some payback. Wendell, the kind of nonchalant character whose fate is inexorably tied to dumb luck as much as gall, has recently had his ego cowed into submission by the law (he was busted for selling fake IDs to border-jumpers). We feel the relish Wendell gets when, after a long hiatus from hell-raising, he dons his old outfit and straps on his signature leather belt, all to a theme song that rivals that of the Duke boys.

Months after first seeing "The Wendell Baker Story," I remember that theme song. Full of rarely heard country-western pop hits from the '70s, the movie has the retro soundtrack of the year, easily besting Wes Anderson's current theatrical release, "The Darjeeling Limited."

Wilson, who wrote the screenplay and co-directed with his brother Andrew, is going for the same kind of slacker comedy he achieved with Anderson at the helm in "Bottle Rocket." Wendell is a laid-back Texan living off his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) with a questionable home business when he is caught, skips through a brief but colorful stint in stir and winds up on work release at a retirement home owned by the shady Neil King (Owen Wilson). There he befriends a couple of the old codgers (Harry Dean Stanton and Seymour Cassel), who inform him of Neil's plans to put them out to pasture.

This is where Wendell gets his belt back, hoping to save his buddies and their home. Coming after two acts of preamble that contain only a handful of mildly humorous scenes, the moment promises a release of energy that never really arrives. Instead, the story simply moseys through a rescue sequence that offers little except the mediocre jokes that have kept people awake so far. "Wendell Baker" has more than enough style and potential to keep you hopeful until the end. But though Wendell might walk off into the sunset, victorious, his movie can't live up to him. (PG-13) S

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