You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains,” Owen Wilson drawls with mock sincerity, holding the hand of a bridesmaid in the new comedy Wedding Crashers. He blinks his eyelashes like a hypnotist shining two pocket watches in front of her eyes: “I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.”
Hilarious as a romantic divorce attorney who crashes weddings to pick up chicks with his horny buddy (Vince Vaughn), Wilson delivers this line perfectly. His voice cracks just slightly on that last word, and he soulfully squinches up the tanned crow’s-feet around his eyes in the manner of vintage Robert Redford. Throughout the film, Wilson does what all comedic Lotharios—from Cary Grant to Burt Reynolds to Bill Murray—do best: He bullshits a lady who knows that he’s a cad but falls for him anyway.
“You know, we’d already finished that whole sequence when I came up with that line,” recalls Wilson, referring to a bawdy montage that tracks Wilson and Vaughn as they bed a bevy of wedding guests. “At about the same age as I was interested in petrified wood, I was just fascinated with this dumb idea that we only used 10 percent of our brains. I was always thinking, Man, if I could only use 20 … ”
So Wilson told director David Dobkin his idea, and Dobkin quickly set up a last-minute shot with an impromptu backdrop. Now it’s the tagline of the trailer and the biggest laugh in the year’s funniest comedy. It’s also proof of Wilson’s battle-tested, almost-scientific ability to take a dull part and make it funnier than it ought to be. “The studios, as you go along, they give you more responsibility and control,” says Wilson, who speaks with a schoolboy’s earnest enthusiasm about comedy (he is prone to quoting E. B. White on the subject). The only problem is, he confesses, “I’m never really sure exactly what’s going to work”—confidently striking just the right note of humility, again. And, just like that bridesmaid, I don’t care if it’s a put-on. All I can think is: Aww . . .
Wilson’s appeal is often misunderstood. Onscreen, he projects an easygoing charm that’s led to his being labeled a slacker or stoner—but that laid-back label’s never made too much sense. Sure, his characters talk slow, but his comedy’s always been quick, a kind of puppy-dog eagerness paired with self-aware wit. And even his most easygoing acting belies the way Wilson works aggressively behind the scenes. Unlike many self-styled smart alecks, Wilson, the son of a Dallas PBS exec, wound his way through military school and UT-Austin, before finding Wes Anderson. Early on, the English major focused on scripts, co-writing Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums (he also acted in all but Rushmore). Soon, Wilson developed a reputation for playing dumb, even as he became known in the industry for smartening up mediocre projects. Wedding Crashers, which easily could have been a crass one-gimmick goof, was no different.
“When I first read the script, I wasn’t comfortable,” Wilson admits. “It was a funny concept and story, but part felt corny … Vince and I did a lot of work, meeting with writers [Steve Faber and Bob Fisher].”
A veteran of buddy comedies (Ben Stiller has called him “Über-buddy”), Wilson says he, Vaughn, and the team revised the plot so that the pals “have this falling- out” and then come back together. “A buddy movie has to have that beat where one buddy doesn’t show up,” he says with a composer’s precision. “They hit the same beats as romantic comedies.”
So Wilson and Vaughn pushed to overhaul the entire “second and third act” of the comedy, he says, completely changing the arc of Vaughn’s romance, and slashing a Graduate-like wedding scene in which Wilson stops his lover (Rachel McAdams) from getting hitched. “It felt like a movie you’ve seen a million times before,” says Wilson. Vaughn says they “went through the entire script and there wasn’t a scene that we didn’t go through and change.”
Now the final half plays less predictably—even if there’s the unmistakable scent of Meet the Fockers midway through (Christopher Walken steps into the De Niro role as McAdams’s father; there’s even a backyard football game). Still, Wilson says the main revision was taking this raunchy, R-rated sex comedy and giving it more heart: Instead of using 10 percent, say, stretching for 20.
“We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just about some tomcats, some frat guys,” says Wilson, in that slightly pained tone he uses to gripe. So he and Vaughn helped recast both characters so that “they actually loved weddings, so that enthusiasm is genuine,” he says. “It’s much more fun to play that.”
Ever since his flamboyantly funny turn in Anderson’s 1996 Sundance hit turned flop turned cult favorite Bottle Rocket, Wilson has searched for the kind of roles that suit his goofy enthusiasm. With those sandy good looks, though, he couldn’t refuse lucrative and ludicrous macho parts in films like Armageddon, not to mention Anaconda, which he sparked up with another ad-lib: “Is it just me, or does the jungle make you really, really horny?”
Outside Anderson’s orbit, Wilson quickly learned his limits. First, he recognized that he didn’t have much so-called range, at least in the stunt-casting sense: “I’m not going to play a guy with MS or a guy in a wheelchair,” he says frankly. “I can play a dramatic character, certainly, but I’m not the real chameleon-type actor who, you know, changes his voice and everything.”
Wilson trademarked the role of the exuberant fool—radiating what his ex-girlfriend Sheryl Crow once called “strident naiveté.”
Instead, he trademarked the role of the exuberant fool, a man utterly lost in dreams of manly heroism, radiating what his ex-girlfriend Sheryl Crow once called “strident naïveté.” Over and over, his characters have been our comic Don Quixotes, aspiring to chivalric ideals, then failing, then finding some moral victory in the end—a welcome antidote to the current era of overcooked heroism.
Wedding Crashers could be his biggest hit yet, but even that poses a threat. For maintaining control over a script is one thing—and managing this kind of fame is another. Sure, most of the new attention is highly flattering. Elizabeth Crane’s new novel, All This Heavenly Glory, even begins with a seven-page, one-sentence personal ad that begs the handsome actor to come to the altar: “[I]n search of Owen Wilson for long-term relationship possibly involving children … [T]he hope is that O.W. will exhibit an inviting and exhilarating humanity … ”
Other responses have not been so positive. As we high-mindedly discuss comic formulas, Wilson is interrupted—he sets down his handset and picks up his ringing cell phone, immediately raising his voice. “I know! Everybody knows that it’s a total lie!” I immediately realize what he must be talking about: a trashy gossip item from the day before, alleging that he’d had kinky sex (gasp!) after, of all things, a wedding. As the mellow actor briefly loses his cool, it’s a reminder that, in this blind-item adult culture, it’s nearly impossible to hold on to your dignity, let alone your optimism. He fumes into his phone: “I haven’t been to a wedding in ten years!”
Well, the gossip can’t hurt him too much. As Wilson’s wedding crasher knows, there are few things more attractive than a vulnerable cad.