Bottle Rocket (1996)

The Royal Tenenbaums was my first Wes Anderson film, and with a cast like that, how could I not love it? Well, I guess there was a possibility I wouldn’t, as numerous films have proven that having the right actors does not necessarily a good movie make. But this was not the case, and I made sure to watch all of his subsequent films as they came out, and have enjoyed each of them (some more than others) in turn. I also made sure to hit up his preceding film, Rushmore, but his first full-length feature, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, was the only one of his films that I simply hadn’t gotten around to. What better excuse to tie up that loose end than a week of Wes Anderson here on Film’s Okay (I Guess)?

Bottle Rocket centers around Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson), the latter assisting the former “escape” from a voluntary mental ward. Dignan is obsessed with planning out anything and everything he does, and this naturally includes anyone working with him. After a test heist on Anthony’s house, the two ask Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) to be their getaway driver, the main reason for this being that he’s the only one of the three who owns a car. After successfully robbing a small bookstore (which is comic in its casualness between the robbers and the victims, including chasing down Rob who’s supposed to be in Literature but isn’t), they decide to lay low at hotel now that they’re “fugitives.” Here Anthony meets Inez (Lumi Cavazos) and is immediately smitten. Despite the fact that she speaks little to no English, Anthony manages to woo her.

Bob suddenly must leave after finding out his brother has been arrested following the discovery of Bob’s marijuana plot in their backyard, and sneaks out in the middle of the night, leaving his partners in crime on their own and Dignan incensed that Bob “stole” his own car. After using an exasperated dishwasher as a translator, Inez tells Anthony that she can’t come with him, nor does she want him to stay. Heartbroken, Anthony gives her an envelope that, unbeknownst to her, contains the majority of their recent spoils, and leaves. Inez decides after the fact that she does indeed love Anthony, and asks the aforementioned dishwasher relay to Dignan this information. Unfortunately, Dignan thinks that the dishwasher is confessing his love for Anthony, and dismisses him outright.

Afterwards, Anthony decides to try living an honest life, only to find himself dragged back into another one of Dignan’s plans along with Bob, this time with a larger group and backed by the well-to-do Mr. Henry (James Caan). As Anthony and Dignan prep themselves for the heist, Dignan mentions the dishwasher’s message, and Anthony, realizing what has happened, contacts the now English-fluent Inez, and they decide to start their relationship anew. Anthony returns to the heist, and naturally everything begins to go wrong, culminating in one of the group being shot in the arm by Bob and Dignan’s arrest while he attempts to help the injured member of the team as the rest of the group flees.

Later, it is revealed that Mr. Henry robbed Bob’s house, but this has apparently brought a form of peace between Bob and his usually abusive brother. Bob and Anthony visit Dignan in prison, and after leading them on with an elaborate escape plan, reveals that he’s only joking, and comments on the irony of how he’s in jail but Anthony is no longer in the nuthouse. He then heads back into prison with a slight grin on his face.

The best part of Bottle Rocket is probably seeing the beginnings of Wes Anderson’s signature style emerging, even at this stage, his trademark camera work, writing (although half of this is Owen Wilson, a frequent collaborator) and quirky characters are all present. While some filmgoers may dismiss Anderson’s work as “pretentious” and “indie hipster trash,” it’s important to note that this type of argument is used by those who don’t understand the kind of film Anderson creates. He practically dissects his characters right in front of us, lays open their eccentricities and flaws, and takes us (and them) through situations that tend to only exacerbate their problems. We really get into the meat of the characters, we relate to them, and to put it in another way, it’s simply very human.

Some have described Bottle Rocket as their least favorite Anderson film, so I was somewhat wary. But one must keep in mind that “least favorite” does not imply in any way that the film in question wasn’t up to par, rather, that in the company of great films, being at the bottom of the totem pole isn’t a bad thing. Interestingly, at the time Bottle Rocket was made it reportedly scored the lowest of any film during a test screening at Columbia Pictures, and while I can definitively say that there are other Anderson films that I like more, I’m pleased to say that I personally found Bottle Rocket to be just as well-crafted as the director’s other offerings, and in many ways, a look at the beginnings of great things to come.

-Adam

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