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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Bottle Rocket (1996)

September 16th, 2009
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I walked into Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums totally unprepared for the idiosyncratic work of genius I was about to see.  I had seen Rushmore on video a year or so earlier, but I’d gone in expecting a goofy Bill Murray comedy and so didn’t quite know what to make of the film I actually saw.  While Rushmore had gotten a lot of acclaim upon its release, the film didn’t exactly blow my skirt up (to borrow one of my favorite lines from True Lies).  But I’ll watch Gene Hackman in almost anything, and the rest of the ensemble cast of Tenenbaums looked intriguing, so I decided to check out the film when it came out in theatres.  I was absolutely blown away by what I saw: the film was emotional and very, very funny, but even more than that, every frame seemed to be absolutely unique, unlike any other film I’d ever seen before.  This was the work of an accomplished, singular filmmaker.

The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favorite film by Wes Anderson, but I’ve also quite enjoyed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (a much-underrated film that I have really grown to like upon repeat viewings) and The Darjeeling Limited.  Despite my appreciation of those films, though, I had never sought out Mr. Anderson’s first film: Bottle Rocket.  There’s no particular reason for that — I wasn’t avoiding seeing it — it’s just a film that I never got around to watching.  But when the Criterion Collection (always known for their high-quality presentations of notable films) released Bottle Rocket on DVD last spring, I knew I had to take the plunge.

Bottle Rocket focuses primarily on the friendship between three young men: Anthony (Luke Wilson), Dignan (Owen Wilson), and Bob (Robert Musgrave).  The three guys — Dignan in particular — harbor aspirations of becoming master criminals.  When we meet them at the start of the film, though, they’re pretty hapless.

Bottle Rocket isn’t strong on plot, exactly.  That’s not to say that nothing happens in the film — quite a lot happens, actually.  But there isn’t really a strong dramatic through-line to the events — the movie feels more like a series of vignettes.  That hurts the pacing of the film somewhat, but adds to the naturalism of the story.  These three friends aren’t typical movie-heroes caught up in BIG DRAMATIC events.  They’re just sort-of hapless schmoes trying their best to figure out their own lives and find their way in the world.  And therein lies the movie’s charm.

The two Wilson brothers and Robert Musgrave all turn in strong performances — especially Owen Wilson, whose character of Dignan is a truly unique creation.  The great James Caan is also a lot of fun to see in his small role as Mr. Henry, the older local thief who Dignan idolizes.  I should also mention Lumi Cavazos who plays Inez, the South American maid with whom Anthony falls in love when the three boys go “on the lam” after a small book-store heist that they pull.

That “on the lam” story makes up the bulk of the middle of the film, and the time and attention that Mr. Anderson gives to that sequence is a great example of what I was describing earlier about the film’s sort-of bizarre pace.  One could argue that nothing of great consequence happens during the boys’ brief stay at that out-of-the way motel — in some ways, the sequence is a lengthy digression from the events of the rest of the film.  I will admit to getting a little antsy during this part, thinking to myself, “where is this going?”   But for Mr. Anderson, the devil, as they say, is in the teensy tiny details.  Not only in terms of his set design (where you can see the lavish attention to detail that would come to define his later work), but also in terms of the development of his characters.  True, nothing really EXCITING happens during this long middle section of the film — there’s nothing that would warrant inclusion in a typical Hollywood crime film.  And yet, within the normal, almost every-day events that Mr. Anderson captures of these few weeks in the lives of Anthony, Dignan, and Bob, there is a universe of small moments that reveal to us the characters of these three men — what they’re each looking for, and where they’re going.

That seems to be what interests Wes Anderson in this story — and luckily, his script (co-written with Owen Wilson) and his actors are all compelling enough to take the viewer along for the ride.

Bottle Rocket isn’t for everyone.  This is a bizarre, small film.  But I’m glad to have seen it, and it will sit proudly on my DVD shelf next to the rest of Mr. Anderson’s films.

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