Bottle Rocket (Director: Wes Anderson): I’ve seen Wes Anderson’s feature debut three or maybe four times by now, but it’s a film I enjoy more and more with each viewing. My first exposure to Anderson was seeing Rushmore at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival and it just knocked me out. When I sought out Bottle Rocket a few months later, I was underwhelmed. It was much more subtle than Rushmore, from the characterization to the art direction, but over the years my estimation of the film has risen considerably. Criterion’s recent release of the film on DVD gave me another opportunity to evaluate it, and it was great to see all of the Wes Anderson touches there, even at the beginning. Critics of Anderson’s work often point out that he hasn’t really changed much as a director, and that even with bigger budgets and larger canvases with which to work, he still ends up telling the same stories. Even as a huge fan of his work, I’d have to say that there’s a lot of truth in that criticism, especially after watching Bottle Rocket again.
The film begins with Anthony (Luke Wilson) being released from a mental hospital where he’d been treated for “exhaustion.” His friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) has come to “break him out,” not realizing that the hospital is voluntary, and that Anthony can leave anytime he wants. In the first of many examples, Anthony plays along with the ruse to make his friend feel better. Dignan is a hyperactive guy with big plans. Although he was fired from his landscaping job with local entrepreneur and smalltime hood Mr. Henry (James Caan), he’s eager to impress him and get his old job back. He recruits Anthony into his “gang” along with their rich friend Bob (Robert Musgrave), the only one who owns a car. The plan is to pull off a daring heist to impress Mr. Henry, thus gaining them entry into his criminal circle (which is fronted by his landscaping business, the Lawn Wranglers).
Their meticulously planned robbery, of a bookstore(!), goes well enough, but their plan calls for them to go “on the lam” so they drive out to the middle of nowhere to hide out in a motel. This middle section of the film is particularly charming, as Anthony falls completely head over heels for Inez, a Paraguayan housekeeper at the motel, in spite of the fact that she speaks no English and he can’t speak Spanish. Anthony seems so desperate to make a connection outside of his social class that this should feel creepy, but thanks to Luke Wilson’s winning performance, it actually manages to feel romantic. A family situation results in Bob taking off in the middle of the night with his car, leading to one of the film’s most memorable lines, from Dignan: “Bob’s gone. He stole his car!” The now-carless gang (Anthony and Dignan) try to keep their flight from the law going, but it soon turns sour and they end up returning home separately. Weeks go by, until Dignan turns up to invite Anthony (and more reluctantly, Bob) into a big score with Mr. Henry’s gang.
I won’t say anymore but I was delighted to discover that the film seems just as fresh as it did the first time I saw it, almost ten years ago now. I love Anderson’s by now trademark use of single-minded and eccentric protagonists, as well as his tendency to portray multi-cultural and multi-generational friendships. It’s a joy to see the debut of Owen Wilson, playing one of the more memorable characters in recent American cinema, and to see him acting with both of his brothers (older brother Andrew plays Bob’s bullying older brother, whom they oddly call “Future Man”.) The film has that feeling of being made by a small group of friends, or in this case, a family.
The only thing I was left wondering was what happened to Robert Musgrave, whose performance as Bob was excellent. In the “making of” included on the DVD, he appears wistful as he revisits some of the locations, some now torn down. I wonder if he ever feels like he was the only one left behind as the other players went on to fortune and fame, while his career has consisted of playing bit parts. Speaking of the “making of”, it was filmed in Spring 2008 and Luke Wilson doesn’t look good at all. Overweight and tired-looking, he really doesn’t come across as the man whom producer James L. Brooks insisted had to “deliver the romance.” I sincerely hope he’s okay.
Other treasures on this 2-disc set I’ve yet to explore include a commentary track with Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, who wrote the film together, and the original 13-minute black and white short, made in 1992, on which the feature was based.
Note: This film always reminds me of another indie film that came out around the same time about a group of hapless wannabe crooks. Palookaville (1995), directed by Alan Taylor, and starring Vincent Gallo, William Forsythe and Adam Trese was another enjoyable and eccentric film about a gang of lovable losers who really weren’t cut out for the criminal lifestyle. I always wonder about the timing of these two films, and why director Alan Taylor never went on to any measure of cinematic success (though he has had a lot of success as a television director, winning an Emmy and working on acclaimed shows such as Mad Men, Lost, The Sopranos and Sex and the City). It’s a good little film and is underappreciated, I think. Try Bottle Rocket and Palookaville as a double feature sometime.