Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Maddening Enigma of Owen Wilson

So I was in the mood for a movie that would cheer me up the other day, and I rented Drillbit Taylor, starring Owen Wilson.

To its credit, it had a few funny lines and a montage sequence set to Eminem's "Ass Like That", but in general it was pretty awful. I actually walked into another room halfway through so I could check my e-mail. (I didn't have any. Would it freakin' kill you to send me an e-mail?)

The whole incident left me sort of disgusted and wondering: How is it that I like Owen Wilson so much, yet hate virtually every film he's ever starred in?

I was so bored by Drillbit Taylor I walked out; I was so bored by The Big Bounce that I turned it off; I was so alarmed by Wedding Crashers' slide from cheerful misbehavior to sappy love that I walked out before one of the characters embarrassed himself by making a public, romantic speech.

Also, he starred in "You, Me & Dupree," which to be fair I have not actually seen but was so universally panned I feel comfortable disliking it by proxy.

All of this is puzzling. Wilson is both a gifted writer who should have an eye for good scripts, and a gifted performer who should breathe life into poor ones. He can take small moments and turn them into gems with barely perceptible half-twists. In Drillbit Taylor, his character goes on about his dream of moving to Canada, then reveals that his mental grasp on the country is less than firm when he says something like: "They have British Columbian women there. Can you imagine that combination?"

So why is is that a lot of the movies Wilson stars in are crummy?

It's because Wilson is a victim of the Leading Man Syndrome, when a gifted actor who in was born to play supporting roles is shoehorned into being a leading man.

Some actors are meant to be the steady fixtures at the center of films, around which everything else in the movie pivots. Some, however, are meant to stay at the margins of films, where the more colorful, funny or memorable roles can be found as the leading man holds everything down.

Take Alec Baldwin. There was a stretch where Hollywood was convinced he was a leading man, and cast him in a bunch of roles few people can remember now. (Rented Prelude to a Kiss Lately? Me neither.) Then he found his supporting player groove, which may have began with a brief but scathing appearance in Glengarry Glen Ross and continues through this day on 30 Rock. In between, he has played a depressed shoe executive, an actor with a taste for less-than-legal girls and a scheming casino executive, the last of which earned him Academy Award nomination. He recognized Leading Man Syndrome and deftly sidestepped it.

Another actor who has grappled, mostly successfully, with the Leading Man enigma is Brad Pitt. Pitt is a gifted actor in both starring and supporting roles, but despite his Angelina Jolie-snagging good looks, he is clearly a wildly expressive comic actor in a leading man's body. He was praised for his somber performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but in later years, he will likely be remembered for loopy turns in 12 Monkeys, Burn After Reading and Snatch. (He also crafted one of the great screen stoners of all time, despite only a few minutes of screen time, in True Romance.) He recognized Leading Man Syndrome and divides his time between well chosen starring and supporting roles.

So, Owen Wilson: It's your turn to choose between forgettable, poorly fitting leading-man roles and sharp, funny supporting turns people will remember for along time.

Please, for the sake of audiences, make the right choice.