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THE ACTOR'S LIFE

It's funny about Owen Wilson

More ad-lib comic than thespian, the Frat Pack's golden boy says he just got `lucky.' (Don't believe it.)

July 09, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

OWEN WILSON may be the only Oscar-nominated screenwriter who's never owned a computer. He's not going to take the plunge now at the advanced age of 37 because he's afraid he'd get addicted to computer games.

"If I got one at this point, I'm very susceptible to getting super into it," he drawls over turkey burgers in a joint in Venice. "I'll look at these ads for these war games they have, and they look so cool." He elongates the word for effect. "I feel I could really lose myself."

It's hard to reconcile the various faces of Owen Wilson: the wildly competitive devotee of ping-pong, foosball, bocce and a game called head soccer (soccer played on a tennis court), the girl-chasing figure labeled "The Butterscotch Stallion" in the tabloids, with the guy who cries at "The End of the Affair" and reads the Graham Greene novel afterward, who can quote chunks of dialogue from films such as Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven." With director Wes Anderson, Wilson co-wrote two of the most amusing but poignant distillations of precocity of the last dozen years: "Rushmore," with Bill Murray, and "The Royal Tenenbaums," which was nominated for an Oscar.

Yet he's also a charter member of the comedy frat pack, a golden circle of 30-something funny guys that includes Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, Jack Black, Steve Carell, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, whose broad antics have powered mainstream comedy for the last half-dozen years and whose most potent screen relationships appear to be with one another. That was all too apparent in last summer's raucous, hard-R comedy "Wedding Crashers," in which Wilson and Vaughn troll for chicks like a particularly libidinous Lewis and Martin.

At first, it appeared as if the latter incarnation came to lunch as Wilson ambled up in a rumpled T-shirt, loose pants and no wallet. His freakishly blue eyes peer out from under a mop of longish blond surfer hair, and the famed, twice-broken beak looks more Roman in profile than the mashed-up boxer's schnoz that defines his face from the head-on perspective. And then there's the grin, which alternates from shy, polite Texan to louche ladies' man. Still, while some major movie stars seem shellacked in narcissism, Wilson emits a wry curiosity. He actually asks questions and listens for the answers.

Like Woody Allen, Wilson is less an actor than a comic persona who acts. And the shtick does vary from a kind of mouthy, ironic parody of a Tom Cruise action figure ("Armageddon") to a mouthy, ironic, arrested-adolescent party boy ("Wedding Crashers") to a so-sincere-it's-ironic adolescent slacker ("You, Me and Dupree," landing in theaters Friday).

The latest film is a comic paean to the underachiever. Wilson's Dupree is a wide-eyed naif who at 35, 36, 37 can't manage to get a life, a career, a girl, a sense of direction, some hard elbows useful for clawing one's way through the grown-up world. In the film, Dupree, beanbag chair in tow, moves in with his newly married best friend, the uptight Carl (played by Matt Dillon), and his wife (Kate Hudson), and wreaks havoc, ultimately imparting some addled life lessons. Perhaps the most important involves being true to oneself -- a theme that echoes from both "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" -- although here the message is delivered with goofy glee rather than drenched in loss.

Wilson developed the idea for "You, Me and Dupree" with writer Mike LeSieur and produced the Universal film while ad-libbing more than a few of the movie's signature scenes.

"He's got an amazing ability to improv, because he has such a mind for storytelling," says Anthony Russo, one of the forces on the cult TV show "Arrested Development," who directed the film with his brother, Joe. "Owen keeps his improv right on target. Normally you can use about 10% of what somebody does, but with Owen, you can use 90%."

"The way he works is he likes to keep every take fresh," adds Joe Russo. "He changes every take, and he rarely does the same thing twice. He's like a jazz musician who goes on a 10-minute riff. He'll find a new melody to start playing."

"Owen is great because you get all the imaginative, addictive stuff that the great comics bring, but without the angst," says director Shawn Levy, who just employed Wilson as a 3-inch-tall cowboy in the upcoming holiday release "Night at the Museum." "Maybe there's angst, but if so, he's disguised it well. I had all the pleasure and none of the pain. For a comic, that's unique."

Unlike some of his counterparts (Stiller or Vaughn or Anderson, for instance), Wilson doesn't bristle with ambition and perfectionism.

He seems to treat the whole movie-star phenomenon as an incredibly fortuitous freak of nature, like a comet that happily landed on his head. He never intended to star in "Bottle Rocket," his screen debut, which he co-wrote with Anderson, but they couldn't get anybody else to take on the role of Dignan, the demented would-be burglar.

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