Not so long ago, Luke Wilson was a promising up-and-comer, equally comfortable in quirky indies, dude-aimed bromances, and lady-targeted romantic comedies. A few years and questionable choices later, he’s probably best known as the guy trying to sell you cell-phone service in those much-mocked AT&T commercials. What happened? Can his starring role in this weekend’s Middle Men help turn things around? And if not, what might? We’ve carefully analyzed Wilson’s career, and asked agents, managers, and publicists for their candid opinions: If Luke Wilson were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?
STOCK HISTORY: Wilson’s early ascent owed mostly to his friendship with Wes Anderson — roommate and writing partner of Wilson’s brother, Owen — who cast him in deadpan roles in 1996’s Bottle Rocket, 1998’s Rushmore, and 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Too handsome for just indies, though, he was quickly drafted to play supporting boyfriends to Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon in romantic comedies like Home Fries and the Legally Blonde movies. In 2003, Wilson headlined Todd Phillips’s Old School, becoming a member of comedy’s so-called Frat Pack (whose ranks also include Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and Ben Stiller). But he hasn’t carried a hit since then, and for the past few years he’s been spreading himself thin with roles in low-grossing nice-tries (Henry Poole, Tenure, Idiocracy) and embarrassing stinkers (My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Blonde Ambition). Oh, and there were those AT&T ads.
PEERS: “You’re either a bankable star, or you’re nobody,” explains the head of talent at a major agency. “Studios want what’s hot now, or what’s the next hot — not what used to be hot. But let’s be honest: He was never a movie star, just a great, talented character actor who appeared in some studio movies. And when he finally got his shot at a starring role, it was in a terrible film, My Super Ex-Girlfriend — and that was really Uma Thurman starring, anyway.” Pressed to name someone in his strata, one manager told us: “He’s more than a Baldwin brother, but less than an Alec, to be sure,” adding that “the AT&T commercials were like Jason Lee in the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.”
MARKET VALUE: There’s a reason Wilson has played so many accessory boyfriends — he’s handsome, a little aloof, and capable of being charming without ever making a scene (he’s perfectly cast as the guy who shows up with flowers after Reese Witherspoon proves she’s more than just a fashionable ditz). Similarly, his dry, low-key charisma makes him a great foil for pantsless Will Ferrell or the wackier members of Wes Anderson’s creature shop. But despite no shortage of trying, he’s never quite been able to hack it as a leading man who can carry a movie on his own (this weekend’s critically tolerated Middle Men seems unlikely to change that perception). You know what, though? Seven-year slump or no, he’s still eminently likable and easy to root for. (Also, nobody begrudges him some flailing after his brother Owen’s suicide attempt in 2007.) With a great second-fiddle role in the right project, he could still turn this around.
WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS: Says an agent: “Luke’s career has become an example of what not to do. He may be valuable on the independent market, but in the studio world? He’s dead to the industry. He’s in actor’s limbo.” A manager points to the commercials as a particularly bad career move: “When an actor becomes more readily identifiable with the [ad] campaign their doing than the movies they’re doing, that’s a problem.” Worse still, though, is Wilson’s role selection. “He did six movies in 2007,” says the agent, “but most of ‘em are crap. Instead of doing six bad movies, do one good one. I mean, Vacancy? Are you insane? Putting him into genre thrillers for a paycheck?” The manager puts it a bit more delicately: “He’s made some strange choices. He needs to work with quality filmmakers; that shows you still care about acting.” On the slightly brighter side, a publicist doesn’t think Wilson needs to radically reupholster image: “Just do something that audiences want to see you do. He’s done great stuff, and needs to do it again.” Unfortunately, as the manager points out, two of the things people might like to see him in — a Wes Anderson or Todd Phillips movie — could be hard to come by: “Those guys are all getting squeezed on who they can make their movies with.”
ANALYSIS: Probably the most jarring thing about seeing him in those AT&T ads was that we hadn’t realized just how far he’d fallen — pretty far! So what should he do now? Assuming that sequels to Old School and Royal Tenenbaums are off the table, he’s left with one good option: television, where aloof, straight-man Jim Halpert types are in greater demand (and actors like Charlie Sheen have bounced back from more than just cell-phone ads). Luckily, he’s a step ahead of us: Wilson is starring as the drug-addicted ex-husband of an enlightenment-seeking Laura Dern on Mike White’s Enlightened, an HBO show whose first season is currently shooting. The manager we spoke with thinks Wilson could be “huge and make a ton of money” in a more mainstream network series, but, hey, there’s always next pilot season.
THE BOTTOM LINE: He’s a talented, well-connected actor and nobody harbors any ill will toward him. He’s made a few crappy choices, but with the right ones, who knows? It can’t get much worse than those AT&T commercials.
BUY/SELL/HOLD?: If he sticks with TV for a while? Hold. Otherwise — sell!