Owen Wilson Overstays His Welcome

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Owen Wilson, left, plays Dupree the permanent house guest in the new comedy "You, Me and Dupree"

It has happened to most of us at one time or another: an annoying person takes up residence on our couch or in the spare bedroom and for one reason or another cannot be removed from the house. The classic of the genre is, of course, The Man Who Came to Dinner, which, as we speak, is doubtless playing in a community theater somewhere in the United States. You remember: an arrogant author, on lecture tour, falls, breaks his leg and must stay with a small-town family for weeks, wreaking havoc on their formerly orderly lives.

You, Me and Dupreeis the modern, or slacker, version of that story. Owen Wilson's Randolph Dupree is not contemptuous of middle-class values. He's a sweet-spirited perpetual adolescent, who has lost his job, his car and his apartment and lacks any skills the job market might conceivably require. So he moves his beanbag chair and his moose head into the tidy little craftsman bungalow inhabited by his best friend, Carl (Matt Dillon) and his new bride, Molly (Kate Hudson). He means to be helpful, but continually screws up in ways that are meant to be funny, but are, in fact, so stupid and vulgar that I can't bear to write them down here. Suffice it to say that they generally involve bodily needs and functions that disgust his hosts — not to mention us, watching.

Except, curiously, Molly. There's something so innocent and vulnerable about Dupree that it slowly awakens her sympathy — especially when she contrasts it to Carl's workaholic and neglectful ways. He has been rendered sullen and distracted by her real estate mogul father (Michael Douglas), for whom he works. The old man is sabotaging a project he has given his son-in-law. Worse, he's trying to sabotage their marriage — proposing, among other things, that Carl replace his own last name with Molly's and, incidentally, have a vasectomy, so as not to pollute the family gene pool.

The film's directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, realize Michael Le Sieur's script in a distinctly unmerry way. About halfway through it begins to dawn on you that this is essentially another film in the newish tradition of the unfunny comedy (The Break-Up is another recent example). Or perhaps we should say that it is comedy only because that's the default setting for this kind of movie in the marketing department's computers. Hey, we got a funny guy and a presumptively funny situation, so it must be a laff riot. Or, at least, something we can sell as such.

This puts a lot of pressure on Owen Wilson, which in this instance he's not quite up to. He given some pre-release interviews in which he pretends to be a real-life Dupree, while modestly disclaiming any particular ability as an actor. I don't believe the first claim, but I think we can all agree about the latter. This is a guy who has written three scripts with Wes Anderson — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, which are also, come to think of it, presumptive comedies rather than the real thing. He has, as well, acted in 17 movies in this century alone, which works out to something pretty close to three a year. If that's goofing around, there are a lot of ambitious performers who must envy the guy.

Hmm. Did we say "acting"? Maybe that does slightly exaggerate what he has so far accomplished on screen. But wth his flat little voice and his earnest manner, he's generally been a very welcome presence in the movies. He was especially good as Jackie Chan's co-star in Shanghai Noon and Knights , and he was excellent in The Wedding Crashers last year, where he energetically overcame his basic inertia, in part because the script was well developed nonsense and his constantly scheming co-star, Vince Vaughn, wouldn't let him lie down for long.

In other words, he needs a little propulsive help if he is to be something more than an agreeable reactor instead of an actor , and that's what You, Me and Dupree doesn't supply him. It is full of promising comic notions, which are truncated rather than fully exploited and that forces him to run on niceness, not the desperation that might take him to full-scale dementia. When he does approach that state — as in a chase with a security guard at his father-in-law's office, the Russos don't really know how to develop it in more than routine ways.

All right, you say, once you realize that you're not going to have a lot of fun with this movie, maybe it plays a little better as a sort of problem drama. After all, these are pretty people confronting a common, recognizable situation, however exaggerated its statement is. At that level it sort of works. By which I mean the impulse to walk out on the film does not reach the irresistible level. You stay till the end, which suggests — talk about improbabilities — that there are virtues in Dupree's waywardness, his refusal to run, or even walk, in the rat race. It is a "happy" ending, I suppose. But, frankly, it's one you can tell to your moose head. Anyone whose brain is not stuffed with cotton will find it merely frenzied.