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The Melancholy Hero: On the Acting of Owen Wilson

Near the end of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," the current-day American tourist Gil (Owen Wilson) takes a lingering walk with the beautiful 1920s Parisian, Adriana (Marion Cotillard). They kiss for the first time. When he pulls back, she asks him, gently, "What are you doing?" He takes a big shaky breath and says, honestly and almost desperately, "I don't know!" They go and sit on a bench and Gil continues speaking, "But I did feel, for a minute there while I was doing it, like I was immortal." Adriana's response is, "But you look so sad."

Despite the fact that Gil has spent the entirety of the film gushing enthusiastically about 1920s ex-pat literature to his uninterested wife (Rachel McAdams), and following along behind Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali and all the others with a smile of baffled exhilaration on his face, Woody Allen's script does not shy away from the darker side of nostalgia, its profound loneliness, its potential for existential dissatisfaction. That's the whole point. In this, Allen could not have picked a better alter ego than Owen Wilson, he with the tow-colored mop of hair, the crooked nose, and the smile that seems to need so much in return. In certain contexts, Owen Wilson's smile is heartbreaking. Not just in more serious roles, but in everything.

That seemingly contradictory mix of emotional elements, enthusiasm and loss, occurring at the same moment, is key to what Owen Wilson brings to the table as an actor (and as a writer). In "Midnight in Paris," he is not a conquering hero in his moment of feeling "immortal." He can't be, he is too worried. And even in his moment of immortality, he still looks "so sad." His sense of humor and his openness and enthusiasm always remains intact, and yet his essence is wistful, full of barely hidden pathos, even melancholy. One does not often think of grown men as being "wistful" or full of "pathos"; only little plucky orphans in pig-tails and pinafores should be "wistful." But with Wilson, even in his comedies, I sometimes catch a glimpse float across his face, and want to say, like Adriana in "Midnight in Paris," "You look so sad."

The great comedians often have a deep core of pathos underneath their comedic hijinx. There are certain moments in "The Honeymooners," for example, where I suddenly feel like bursting into tears merely because Jackie Gleason is putting forward his own heart, his own disappointments and impotent rage, so fearlessly, so fully. He lets us "see" that part of him. It's uproariously funny and totally tragic, in the same moment.

Owen Wilson has not taken the the route that indie purists may have preferred him to take. His career has moved forward on almost two independent tracks, the blockbusters/expensive failures and the Wes Anderson projects. He has said he thinks of himself more as a writer than an actor. He wrote the beautiful scripts for "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," for which he was nominated for an Oscar. In the films he has done with Wes Anderson, he often plays guys who are mentally unstable, holding on for dear life to the familiar and the known. They are either institutionalized, or on the verge of being so. They are characters who are longing to integrate, to live a full and complete life, and just can't seem to make the pieces come together. Kind of like Gil in "Midnight in Paris," wanting so badly to connect with someone, to be "heard."

Wilson has said, "I think of myself as a doom person. I'm a worrier. But I like the idea of being an optimist. Maybe I'm the kind of optimist who deep down knows it's not going to work." No wonder that dichotomy of melancholy and enthusiasm is so easily mixed in his screen roles. It comes from someplace very true.

Despite Wilson's high profile, he's taken some wayward paths that I have quite enjoyed, which also shows that a career is always a work-in-progress. I liked him very much in "The Minus Man," from 1999, where he plays a creepily blank guy who charms and woos Janeane Garofalo, somehow managing to hide his monstrous nature from her. A fascinating character study, Wilson manages to show the blank charm of the sociopath, the easy shallow surface meant to camouflage, draw people in, throw them off the scent. I went into "Marley & Me" cynical, and was an emotional wreck by the end of it. It's a deep and moving film that is about, yes, the "worst dog in the world," but it's really about marriage. Wilson seems a little bit lost in it, which is appropriate and endearing because the character's life is racing ahead of him dragging him by the collar. "How Do You Know" (2010) reunited Wilson with James Brooks, who produced "Bottle Rocket," and while the film is uneven and has some major structural problems, Owen Wilson's characterization of Matty, the professional baseball player who sees life as one long party, is some of his best work. He's the reason to see it. The problem (and gift) with such work is that Wilson makes it look easy, so you may miss how good the characterization really is. Wilson says in the DVD commentary track, "Somebody who's always having a good time and completely at ease and comfortable ... you can't 'work hard' to get that." Matty greets every moment with a big smile, and when he is cruel it is because he is thoughtless and careless, not malicious. He looks baffled and stunned when things start to go wrong. When Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) finally breaks up with him for good, he can't even take in the information. She goes to hug him and he says, sincerely, his easygoing facade completely shattered, "What did I do wrong?" He honestly doesn't know.

Some of his major roles in recent years have been in projects that are not worthy of him. "Hall Pass" plunged him underwater into a vague resentful universe of boredom, whining and male-bonding, and it was painful to witness, although the setup had great potential. "Drillbit Taylor" was another film that had potential, and he's beautifully relaxed in it, but the film feels dead. I loved "The Big Year," starring Wilson, along with Steve Martin and Jack Black, a movie that came and went with very little notice. I loved the story of three competitive birders, but it was also a beautiful story about male friendship, a welcome change to the Bros Before Hoes dynamic of so many current comedies. Owen Wilson plays the #1 birder in America, a solitary mysterious figure, who is always one step ahead of his competition, willing to travel anywhere at a moment's notice to track down a snow owl which was seen on a mountaintop halfway across the world. His final moment in the film is an eloquent and tragic closeup, where you get the sense, suddenly, of all he has given up. Throw "Midnight in Paris" in there, alongside "Night at the Museum" and "The Internship" (which I loved), and you get a very uneven couple of years.

It's common knowledge that Owen Wilson tried to commit suicide in 2007. The response from the press (and comments sections of various websites) was very upsetting, especially if you have a history of mental illness/depression, or know someone who does. The hostility towards Wilson, and the gall people expressed that he would feel he had anything to complain about (the same thing happened recently when word of Stephen Fry's suicide attempt came to light) was disheartening to the extreme. In the aftermath, RogerEbert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz called him a "human sunbeam":

But I will say that when I read news stories expressing incredulity that a well-liked comedic actor might be depressed enough to try to end it all, I wonder what planet these writers are from, and if they've ever spent time among the humans that populate this one. Tempting as it may be to seize on cheap ironic contrasts between an artist's life and work—and comb his career and personal life for harbingers of suicidal intent—the process is usually reductive and sometimes insulting. Of course that hasn't stopped the media from trying. "Meanwhile, his fans and colleagues were left to wonder how the perennially good-natured comedic actor, nicknamed 'The Butterscotch Stallion' for his womanizing ways, could be struggling," wrote Marcus Baram, in an ABCNews.com story titled, "Tears of a Clown." "Numerous comedians, from Jim Carrey to Sarah Silverman, have epitomized the cliche of the sad clown, struggling with depression."

What rot. Wilson might have been sad as hell about any number of things, but comic actors aren't inherently more depressive than dramatic actors, novelists, police officers, schoolteachers or bus drivers. People are people, and each one is unique.

Wilson's sadness, like his joy and enthusiasm, feels genuine, always. He resists sentimentality. He tries to look on the bright side. He sometimes fails. "What did I do wrong?" he asks hopelessly. There is no good answer for that. There is a fragility at work in Owen Wilson, which is not just evident in his "serious" roles that get him critical acclaim but in the comedies. Perhaps it is most interesting to note when it turns up there. It is an irrepressible part of him, perhaps the most essential to understanding him and what it is that makes him unique.

One of my favorite moments in Wilson's entire career which shows this wistful quality, sadness mixed with joy, is an entirely stupid scene in "Starsky & Hutch" (which I thought was hilarious). Ben Stiller plays Starsky, the way-too-serious-about-his-job cop, and Wilson plays the laidback Hutch. In one scene, they are wooing two cheerleader babes in Hutch's pad, and Starsky, looking for sugar to put in his coffee, finds the packet of what they think is artificial sweetener and pours it into the cup. Of course it is a new kind of cocaine undetectable by drug-sniffing dogs. When Starsky comes back to join the group, he is coked out of his mind and doesn't know it. Hutch begins to play a song on his guitar (written by David Soul, who played "Hutch" in the original series), and we see him through Starsky's maniacal eyes. A small cartoon bird flits around Wilson's head as he sings, lights on his shoulder, and Wilson, with a gentle smile, acknowledges the imaginary bird, freaking Starsky out even further.

The setup of the scene is screwball comedic, but Wilson, as he plays and sings, inhabits a sort of wistful yearning landscape, sweet and somewhat sad, which very well may be his default position in life as a person and as an actor. The smile that bursts on his face after the cartoon bird flies away is one of intense joy, simple and unfettered, the kind of "human sunbeam" effect that is always present in his work. It's delicate, his talent. It has been mis-used and taken for granted, by others and by himself. That is often par for the course with people who "make it look easy".

I am thrilled that Wilson is going to appear in Peter Bogdanovich's upcoming film, with the Lubitsch-inspired title "Squirrels to the Nuts", which will be shot in New York City. Bogdanovich, like Woody Allen, has often used nostalgia as his main theme. Nostalgia can be tricky. If done sloppily, it is sentimental and lazy. But sometimes it reminds us of the "substance of things hoped for," the dreams we once gave up on, the best parts of ourselves. The ancient Greek and Latin roots of the word "nostalgia" are "to return" or "return home", which is particularly poignant when seen in the context of Wilson's career. Wilson, from the start in "Bottle Rocket", always seemed to be trying to "return", to a time of innocence, freedom, before the worries started, before the darkness descended.

There is nothing to resolve here. The contradictions are what make him compelling.

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