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The Legend of Owen Wilson’s ‘Wow’

When’s the last time you were impressed? Or genuinely surprised? Did you let it be known? Did you actually say anything? Even just a cursory, quiet, summarizing “Wow”?

If not, I can’t say I blame you — and you’re not alone. In 2018, we’re prepared for anything, whether bad or good (or very bad). It isn’t a year of wonder or shock, as little inspires and we’ve long since revised our standards of gobsmacking stupidity and horror. What I’m saying is that if you get hit by a garbage truck today, your last thought is almost certain to be: “Yeah, makes sense.” Cynicism shields us from revelation. In fact, the only thing liable to get a “wow” out of us lately is a supercut or mashup video of actor Owen Wilson saying “wow,” which he does in pretty much all of his movies.

The cause of all this wowing has never been fully explained. It may be an instinctual ad-lib for Wilson; it may be a byproduct of the gentle, gee-whiz, airhead roles he tends to play; it may be, as he’s joked in an interview, a knowing bit of fan service. What’s clear is why directors keep it in their final cuts: Wilson does work with this tiny word. It all begins with his distinctive voice, a scratched whisper whose reedy, forward tone feels inseparable from his twice-broken nose. I’m convinced that this tenor has ASMR-like effects, satisfying some cerebral thirst and singling Wilson out for imitation. Indeed, his “wow” entered memedom by way of a more general parody in 2013, when YouTuber Andrew Barber toured Vancouver as Wilson, reacting to everything with raspy delight.

In the following years, people zeroed in on the wows themselves, charting the ordinary course of internet humor: beating a one-note joke to death. Except the Wilson “wow” wouldn’t be reduced or distilled. As the first definitive edit of all his “wows” demonstrated, no two are alike: Wilson’s characters say “wow” when they’re pleased as well as when they’re offended, when being sarcastic or wry or bored or flirtatious, when they simply can’t think of how to process what’s happening. It’s not a placeholder so much as an all-purpose syllable, his verbal Swiss Army knife. He has mined the ambiguity of those three letters and come up with an answer to any situation in life.

By 2016, we were getting clips of Star Wars lightsaber battles with Wilson’s “wows” dubbed in for the sound effects. Last year, the meme spawned a Kendrick Lamar album cover tribute and prompted Ellen DeGeneres to demand an on-the-spot “wow” in a segment with Wilson. Days ago, hundreds of people gathered in Melbourne, Australia, to say “wow” like Wilson in unison. “Let’s put some positivity out there into the world!” wrote organizer Nicolas Zoumboulis in an invite. “Let’s marvel at the beauty and Wonder of this incredible planet we live on, and let’s WOW like Owen Wilson!” The event was “hosted” by a Facebook group called Owen Wilson Wowposting, where you can peruse a formidable archive of “wow” content and purchase T-shirts bearing the catchphrase.

According to Google Trends, interest in Owen Wilson’s “wows” is at an all-time high. But perhaps not coincidentally, it’s occurring as Wilson’s career has shifted into lower gear. After his comedy blockbusters at the turn of the millennium, his aughts as a ringer in Wes Anderson’s better films and the dubious success of Wedding Crashers, he doesn’t seem to be the box-office bait he once was. His forthcoming project is a Disney documentary about dolphins — he’ll serve as narrator, presumably offering a “wow” here and there in appreciation of these aquatic acrobats.

Back in 2007, Wilson’s image as a happy-go-lucky guy all but evaporated with a suicide attempt he never addressed publicly. Against this background, the “wow” phenomenon feels like a return to goofy innocence, a time before we knew Wilson had demons and an era of Hollywood history where his quirky inflection was inescapable.

Were things better then? Hard to say. But the dedication to this theme is the essence of nostalgia. That decade had its misery, even for Wilson, yet we salvage heartwarming jewels from the wreck.

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The greatest testament to Wilson’s talent is that you don’t have to watch his movies to appreciate him, and you don’t have to stream another “wow” compilation to re-experience the ticklish joy of his signature delivery. Once the Wilson “wow” is lodged in your head, you can hear it whenever you like. As a meme it has broken the boundaries of the screen to exist as pure consciousness, the enduring potential for all that’s good and wholesome. Wilson’s “wow” is, in this dark stretch of American failure, a beacon guiding us toward a kinder future worth wow-ing about.

Stars fade, movies flop and awards mean nothing — but wow endures. It’s funnier every minute. “Wow.” Just, “wow.”