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The Baltimore Sun

'The Wendell Baker Story'

Times Staff Writer

If, upon exiting "The Wendell Baker Story," you find yourself wondering whether we're in the midst of some kind of Baldwinization of the Wilson brothers, you may as well know this now: Three is all there is. If they seem to be proliferating, that's because their latest collaboration, "The Wendell Baker Story," involves all of them. Luke and Owen star, and Andrew co-directs with Luke, who also wrote. It creates the appearance of a crowd, this Luke wearing three times as many hats as he has heads.

The hipster-folksy story of an amiable con man named Wendell (Luke) who lands in jail after his lucrative business selling Texas ID cards to illegal immigrants is busted, "The Wendell Baker Story" trots casually down the same path beaten by the heroes of "Rushmore," "Napoleon Dynamite," "Nacho Libre" and every other deluded dreamer we've come to know and love in recent years.

A feckless hero in the last flower of late adolescence — that being, of course, the adolescence that directly abuts middle-age — Wendell charms his way through life. He adapts easily to prison, brokering peace agreements between black inmates and skinheads and turning the prison into a decent approximation of a social club. But the tension between his illegal actions and his more attractive innate attributes fails to gel into anything resembling tension — perhaps because we've seen it before, more likely because he's designed that way, not to get worked up over anything.

Why his girlfriend, Doreen (Eva Mendes), a Sophia Loren-esque bombshell who has waited her whole life to hear that Wendell loves her, puts up with him as long as she does is unclear — or rather, it's clear but unconvincing. Like Wendell, she's an inner child exteriorized, an innocent with a Teflon soul. Doreen finally gives up and finds herself a responsible grocery store manager (Will Ferrell). Irma (Angela Alvarado), the stern wife of Wendell's best friend, Reyes (Jacob Vargas), forbids her husband to see him after he's released and Wendell is forced to face the fact that it's time to grow up.

What does he do? While in prison, he picks up a copy of Conrad Hilton's book about his hotel empire and brushes up on the business.

If this sounds like the most circuitous path to adulthood ever taken, it pretty much is. After his release, Wendell is sent to work at a retirement hotel run by corrupt nurse Neil King (Owen) and his sidekick McTeague (Eddie Griffin), who are running a scam similar to the one Ione Skye's father ran in "Say Anything," only meaner and more complicated. Wendell, who just wants to get back on track, teams up with a trio of formidable codgers (Seymour Cassel, Harry Dean Stanton and Kris Kristofferson) to bring down King. Three plots into the story, it's hard to keep invested in Wendell's problems. It's hard to keep track of them too.

Still, a cast this charismatic is bound to make something of the situation. In short bursts, the movie is alternately sunny and charming, dark and weird, confounding and dull until it finally dives off the deep end into a wish-fulfillment conclusion that leaves you wondering if Brett Ratner flew in at the last minute to doctor the finale.

Stranger things, I guess, have happened. But it's enough to make you long for the good old days when Wendell was in prison. As much as it looks like an enjoyable project to work on and a blast for all involved, the feeling you get watching "The Wendell Baker Story" is that you probably had to be there.

"The Wendell Baker Story." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some crude and sexual humor and language. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500; Playhouse Cinemas, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 844-6500; AMC Loews Broadway 4, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica (310) 458-6232; Regal/Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.

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