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Owen Wilson's Best Onscreen Performances

With his mischievous smile and instantly recognizable drawl, Owen Wilson has established himself as one of Hollywood's most charming actors. After making his movie debut in the mid '90s, he quickly became one of the biggest names in the business. His range has always been formidable: Wilson is as comfortable in fast-paced action flicks as he is in over-the-top comedies. He's also worked with a dramatically wide variety of talent, holding his own against some of the greatest actors, writers, and directors of the modern era. Few performers could seem as natural embodying the most absurd excesses of the fashion world as they do portraying a downed pilot confronting war crimes, but Wilson makes it look easy. 

Wilson's filmography is so robust, in fact, that it's difficult to know where to start. Should someone looking to appreciate Wilson at his best check out one of his '00s comedies, like "Wedding Crashers"? What about "Midnight in Paris," in which he plays a brooding writer who ends up traveling through time? Not to worry — we're here to help. From his misunderstood first film with longtime friend and collaborator Wes Anderson to the popcorn comedies that made him a Hollywood A-lister, these are Owen Wilson's best-ever onscreen performances.

Francis in The Darjeeling Limited

Owen Wilson has played supporting roles in many Wes Anderson films over the years. In 2007, he got the chance to take center stage in "The Darjeeling Limited," which tells the story of three siblings on a spiritual journey through India. After escaping a motorcycle crash with his life, Wilson's battered and bruised Francis convinces his brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to join him on the titular train. The three have lost touch since their father passed away, and Francis wants to reconnect. To make sure they comply, he confiscates their passports.

From beneath his many bandages, Wilson anchors the film with quiet aplomb, delivering one of his most nuanced performances. Like the audience, his brothers are never quite sure what he's got up his sleeve — case in point, he arranged the trip partly because their estranged mother has been sighted at a Christian convent in the Himalayas. But his intentions are always pure. By the time he admits to his brothers that his so-called accident was actually a suicide attempt, we're rooting for this family just as much as he is. It isn't Wes Anderson's most acclaimed film, but the critics heaped praise on Wilson's performance. "Wilson shines as the oldest brother of three in perhaps his best performance to date," Film School Rejects said in its review.

Roy O'Bannon in Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights

Owen Wilson was one among many Western comedians who got paired with Jackie Chan during his Hollywood heyday. But unlike "The Medallion," "Skiptrace," and "Around the World in 80 Days," 2000's "Shanghai Noon" has managed to withstand the test of time. Wilson co-stars as Roy O'Bannon, an ambitious outlaw whose fortunes begin to turn after a chance meeting with Chan's Chon Wang (which Wilson mishears as John Wayne), a Chinese Imperial Guard looking for a kidnapped princess (Lucy Liu). The film was Wilson's first major shot at the big time, and he snatched it with both hands.

Wilson has real chemistry with Chan (who leads some jaw-dropping action sequences), and the Texas native clearly enjoys himself in the role of Roy O'Bannon. "Wilson gets to be the lovable dreamer, who gives us the essence of The Owen Wilson Experience when he survives a near-death experience and then becomes all sappy, saying, 'I've never noticed what a beautiful melody a creek makes,'" said the AV Club, upon revisiting the film in 2020. Both stars reprised their roles in the somewhat inferior but still totally watchable 2003 sequel "Shanghai Knights," set across the Atlantic in Victorian London.

Jack Dwyer in No Escape

Owen Wilson has never been seen as a go-to action hero — and that's what made him perfect for the role of Jack Dwyer in 2015's "No Escape." Wilson plays an engineer who has been forced to take a job with a big company after the collapse of his own. This means moving his wife (Lake Bell) and kids to an unnamed country in Southeast Asia. The Dwyers have barely had time to unpack when a military coup begins, forcing them to flee for their lives in an unfamiliar land. 

While this role isn't something Wilson would normally consider, he was hooked after reading the script. "I just think it was a character that I could kind of imagine myself playing," the actor told The Hollywood Reporter. "He wasn't doing unbelievable action movie stuff; it was sort of grounded in a reality. It was motivated by that primal stuff when your kids are in danger that you would feel." 

"No Escape" split critics right down the middle, but many were keen to note that Wilson's turn as a frantic father doing everything in his power to save his family is a highlight. The Guardian was taken aback by his "strong action chops," while the Los Angeles Times praised Wilson as being "surprisingly effective as an everyday man of action."

Mobius M. Mobius in Loki

As Time Variance Authority agent Mobius M. Mobius, star of 2021's "Loki," Owen Wilson proved to be an inspired addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mobius tracks down time criminals, one being Sylvie Laufeydottir, an alternate version of Loki from another timeline (played by Sophia Di Martino). In the hopes of stopping her, Mobius decides to recruit his own Loki variant. That variant (the one who escaped using the Tesseract in "Avengers: Endgame") is, of course, played to perfection by Tom Hiddleston. The Brit turns in his most entertaining Loki performance yet in this series, much of it made possible by Wilson, who proves to be more than a match for the razor-tongued god of mischief.

A buddy comedy at heart, "Loki" wouldn't have worked without Wilson's cool and calculated performance, which received widespread approval. "God bless Owen Wilson," Uproxx said in its rave review. "He is Mr. Exposition, but also he's Owen Wilson so of course he can make this entertaining." Other outlets praised the duo's chemistry, which enlivens the series from beginning to end. Playing opposite one of the MCU's most beloved characters is a tall order indeed, but somehow, Wilson makes it look easy.

Gil Pender in Midnight in Paris

Before Owen Wilson and Tom Hiddleston traveled through time in Marvel's "Loki," they did the same thing in the 2011 romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris" — well, kind of. Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a successful Hollywood screenwriter on a trip to the French capital with his demanding fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). The beauty of the City of Lights forces Gil to rethink his relationship — a process that becomes even more intense when a mysterious car shows up and whisks Gil away to the Paris of the past. Here, he meets the likes of Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), and even F. Scott Fitzgerald, portrayed by Hiddleston.

Wilson plays the part of Gil perfectly, despite the fact that the role was originally written for an actor with a completely different vibe. When director Woody Allen's casting director Juliet Taylor threw Wilson's name into the ring, the filmmaker loved the idea and set about tweaking the screenplay with Wilson in mind. Wilson was a little shy to begin with, but the two men soon hit it off: As Marion Cotillard told The Hollywood Reporter, "It was like it was meant to be ... it was really organic and made total sense."

Hansel in Zoolander

2001's "Zoolander" is a comedy classic. Though it's been quoted, parodied, and praised countless times over the years, few fans know the film probably wouldn't have gone ahead without Owen Wilson. Speaking to Hollywood.com, Ben Stiller (who stars as the air-headed male model Derek Zoolander) revealed that the entire production hinged on whether or not Wilson signed on: "Owen was the most important casting to me in the movie," Stiller said, "because I think he is one of the funniest people around — and the part was written for him." Wilson agreed to take on the role of Hansel McDonald, Derek's modeling rival, and the rest is movie history.

Wilson provides the perfect foil for Stiller: The two actors bring out the best in each other as they face off against Will Ferrell's Jacobim Mugatu, a villainous fashion mogul. "The relationship with Derek and Hansel is really important and a real thing," Stiller mused to Hollywood.com. "He is just a uniquely funny guy. There's no other person like Owen." 

According to Wilson, Hansel quickly became a favorite among his fans. "I noticed that when I was traveling, there were a lot of people who came up to me quoting 'Zoolander,'" he told The Independent. "Ben said he had the same experience and a kind of following developed."

Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums

Owen Wilson co-wrote 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums" with longtime friend and collaborator Wes Anderson. The actor made sure to give himself plenty of memorable onscreen moments as Eli Cash, an author of Western novels and next-door neighbor to the dysfunctional Tenenbaums. "Eli is this Cormac McCarthy knockoff," Wilson said of his character, "A guy who grows up in the city and writes novels about the West ... And for him, just like for the Tenenbaums, success doesn't necessarily translate into happiness. Having a hit novel doesn't make him a Tenenbaum."

Eli is best friends with Richie Tenenbaum (played by his real-life brother, Luke Wilson) and has been in love with his sister Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) since they were kids. He's always felt like part of the family, though he knows he never really will be — a fact that weighs heavily upon him. Outlandish yet vulnerable, it's a role that's right up Wilson's alley. Yet it was one he almost wasn't able to take, due to a scheduling conflict: According to Rolling Stone, Owen and Luke Wilson were asked to play the Malloy brothers in Steven Soderbergh's "Oceans Eleven" right around the same time. Both turned it down in order to take part in Anderson's ensemble instead.

John Grogan in Marley & Me

The tearjerker to end all tearjerkers, 2008's "Marley & Me" stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as married journalists with an unruly dog. When Jenny (Aniston) begins talking about having kids, John (Wilson) decides they should start with a fur baby. Marley (so named because of his response to a Bob Marley song playing on the radio) comes in like a wrecking ball and doesn't mellow with age, leading Jenny to tire of him. She quickly realizes that their house isn't a home without Marley, however, and is just as devastated as John and the audience when the beloved pooch reaches the end of his life.

Dog owners know all too well how hard it is to say goodbye to a four-legged member of the family, and Wilson captures that agony with skill. The actor revealed on the film's UK press tour that he shed some very real tears during his final scenes with Marley. "They had this really old dog called Cooper, who played Marley, and he came on set and it was hard not to get emotional because he's a really old dog," Wilson said (via Digital Spy). "Your heart goes out to him and I felt like, yeah, I can do this because it's a believable situation."

M. Chuck in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wilson has read a lot of Wes Anderson scripts in his time, but when he first sat down to look over his old friend's final draft of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," he was blown away. "I just thought that it was one of the most original scripts I've read," the actor said in a promotional interview for the film, which was released to critical acclaim in 2014. The story takes place in the fictional country of Zubrowka, where the titular hotel is located. When Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the lavish hotel's concierge, is accused of murder, he and Zero (Tony Revolori), a hapless lobby boy, go on the run.

Determined to prove his innocence, Gustave seeks the assistance of the Society of the Crossed Keys, a fraternity of concierges to which Owen Wilson's M. Chuck belongs. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is so stacked with talent that Wilson doesn't get as many minutes as he's used to (this Best Picture nominee boasts a star-studded 17-member ensemble cast), but he uses the screen time he's given well, becoming a calming presence for Gustave and Zero as they attempt to evade capture. Wilson is so in-tune with Anderson's sensibilities that he makes it look easy.

Chris 'Longhorn' Burnett in Behind Enemy Lines

Hot on the heels of "Shanghai Noon," Owen Wilson took a change in direction in 2001's "Behind Enemy Lines." Unfortunately for him, his first big deviation from comedy hit theaters in a year absolutely stuffed with war movies. "Behind Enemy Lines" got lost in the noise made over the likes of "Black Hawk Down" and "Pearl Harbor," and as a result, so did one of Wilson's best performances. Wilson plays a hotshot naval pilot who is brought down over war-torn Bosnia during the height of the Bosnian War. He soon makes a grisly discovery, and must evade forces who would prefer he never reveal it to the wider world.

Wilson had done the fish-out-of-water thing before, but playing stranded lieutenant Chris "Longhorn" Burnett was a whole new challenge for him. Unable to rely on his easygoing charm, the usually laid-back actor turned in his grittiest performance to date. Critics were perplexed when he landed the role, but he received rave write-ups in a number of publications. "Wilson stands on the verge of becoming a heroic American archetype, and this should be the part that makes him an authentic star," Time magazine said in its review. "He's a little bit handsome, a little bit funny, a little bit smart, a little bit cool — but not too much any of those things, which means he's easy to take to heart and root for."

Dignan in Bottle Rocket

Owen and Luke Wilson made their feature film debut in 1996's "Bottle Rocket," in which they play suburban best friends Dignan and Anthony. The duo, along with getaway driver Bob (Robert Musgrave), decide to embark upon a series of heists. They end up getting in way over their heads with a local career criminal (James Caan), and things quickly go from bad to worse. But leader Dignan remains full of the infectious (if a bit misplaced) optimism that Owen Wilson would go on to perfect in the coming years. "Bottle Rocket" also served as Wes Anderson's feature-length debut, and the start of the Wilsons' long professional relationship with the celebrated director.

While "Bottle Rocket" wasn't a box office success, it received plenty of critical love and the approval of other filmmakers. It's become a cult classic in the years since its debut, thanks largely to Wilson's memorable turn as Dignan. "'Bottle Rocket' features Owen Wilson's funniest performance," said Rotten Tomatoes in 2021. Much of the film's success, this critic argues, comes down to the fact that it "debuted these fresh-faced unknowns, Owen and Luke Wilson, who are both arresting in their own ways."