Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Owen Wilson & Wes Anderson
Stars: Luke Wilson (Anthony Adams), Owen Wilson (Dignan), Robert Musgrave (Bob Mapplethorpe), Andrew Wilson (John Mapplethorpe, aka Future Man), Lumi Cavazos (Inez), Donny Caicedo (Rocky), Jim Ponds (Applejack), James Caan (Mr. Henry), Kumar Pallana (Kumar)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1996
Country: U.S.
Bottle Rocket DVD
Bottle RocketGiven that he has become one of the most unique voices to emerge in recent American cinema, it is surprising that Wes Anderson’s directorial debut, Bottle Rocket, which he cowrote with star Owen Wilson, didn’t make more of a splash. Or, really, any splash at all. Dismissed by Sundance, ignored by audiences, and pummeled with middling to negative reviews, it looked like it might be the first and last of Anderson’s quirky films. Part of the problem was that the film was misconstrued as a knock-off mixture of Richard Linklater’s Slacker-esque meandering and Quentin Tarantino’s affection for talkative criminals. Granted, Bottle Rocket certainly has those characteristics, and to some extent it is guilty of looking like more of the same, but in hindsight it is a fascinating nascent work that embodies in one way or another virtually everything that is admirable in Anderson’s subsequent films.

The true binding tie in Anderson’s work is his affection for outsiders who dream larger than their lives can allow, which is a fitting summary of Bottle Rocket. It is also the first of his comic examinations of familial dysfunction, even though the “family” is composed of friends--Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson), Dignan (Owen Wilson), and Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave)--who are aspiring criminals even though they don’t have a genuinely criminal bone in their bodies. Dignan, who is the ringleader (at least in his own mind), romanticizes everything, which means that he is always either giddy or disappointed. Anthony, his best friend, has recently come home from a mental hospital after a bout with “exhaustion” (his “escape” from the hospital is the film’s first understated, yet truly hilarious gag), and he goes along with Dignan because, well, he’s Dignan’s friend and that’s what friends do. Bob, on the other hand, is a sad-sack child of privilege who is simply trying to escape the constant pummeling (both verbal and physical) that he receives from his older brother, who is inexplicably dubbed Future Man (Andrew Wilson). The fact that Bob is 26 years old and is still living at home and being bullied by his older brother tells you all you need to know about the film’s infatuation with arrested development.

The basic plot of Bottle Rocket follows the three friends as they perform their first genuine heist (of a bookstore!) and then go on the lam, hiding out in an out-of-the-way motel where Dignan dreams of bigger heists while Anthony falls in love with Inez (Lumi Cavazos), one of the housekeepers who doesn’t speak a word of English. There is a not entirely unexpected fallout among the friends, which is followed by a reunion that culminates in the grand heist of Dignan’s dreams, which he concocts with the mysterious Mr. Henry (James Caan), who runs a landscaping service that may or may not be a front for a criminal organization.

The story, however, is ultimately secondary to the film’s tone, which is a quirky mixture of the mundane and the absurd. It feels very much like a Wes Anderson film, and you can see the nascent traces of Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) lurking in the mannerisms and details of both the actors and the direction. Anderson carefully plotted out the film’s visual approach, and while his style isn’t overly showy, it paints the action with a slightly cartoonish brush, making everything seem just slightly unreal. This is enhanced by the characters, who seem to exist so deep in their own worlds that they can’t be bothered with anything having to do with reality, whether it be Anthony’s mad love for a woman with whom he can’t really communicate or Dignan’s grand ambitions despite his limited intelligence. There is some true hilarity to be found, but if the film lacks anything that makes Anderson’s best films great, it is the underlying sense of humanity. You can sense his affection for the characters, dim as they may be, but they are never drawn clearly enough to transcend their types and dig much beneath the film’s colorful surface.

Bottle Rocket Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director Wes Anderson and co-writer/actor Owen Wilson
  • “The Making of Bottle Rocket” documentary
  • Original 13-minute short film
  • Eleven deleted scenes
  • Anamorphic test footage
  • Storyboards
  • Behind-the-scenes photographs by Laura Wilson
  • “The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1: Bottle Rocket” featurette
  • Murita Cycles, a 1978 short film by Braverman
  • Insert booklet featuring an appreciation by Martin Scorsese and an essay by executive producer James L. Brooks
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 25, 2008

    Bottle Rocket has been available on DVD since 1998, but the old disc has nothing compared to Criterion’s treatment, which has been rumored for years and years. The new high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer, which was made from a 35mm interpositive and supervised by Wes Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman, looks great. The film’s color scheme, which features deep, rich primary colors like the red of Luke Wilson’s sweatshirt and the green of the grass and trees around the motel, really pop off the screen, but without any blooming or bleeding. The digitally restored image is sharp and clear, with no artifacts and great detail. It looks much better than you would expect a low-budget film from the mid-’90s to look. The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original magnetic tracks and then remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The soundtrack is still fairly limited, but the wider scope of the six-channel mix benefits the film’s songs, which are always an important part of a Wes Anderson film.
    Like the movie itself, the audio commentary by director Wes Anderson and co-writer/actor Owen Wilson is odd and interesting. Anderson and Wilson are longtime friends who have worked together on many projects so they obviously have a good rapport, although it’s only six minutes into the commentary before they’re self-consciously turning to preset questions provided by Criterion producer Susan Arosteguy to keep their discussion going. Nevertheless, they find plenty to chat about, mostly reminiscing about the production and, more often than not, finding that they remember things differently. The second disc opens with the 25-minute documentary “The Making of Bottle Rocket” by filmmaker and Anderson friend/collaborator Barry Braverman. It features new interviews with Anderson, executive producers James L. Brooks and Richard Sakai, actors Luke and Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave, James Caan, and Andrew Wilson, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and producer Polly Platt, among others. It is a good overview of the film’s curious indie origins and its disastrous initial reception. There is plenty to learn about the film’s origins, especially with the inclusion of the original 1992 black-and-white 13-minute short film of the same title that was essentially remade and expended for the feature. Also included are Anderson’s original location photographs, storyboards, and the original typewritten budget. The extent to which the feature was trimmed to make it more accessible to mainstream audiences is evidenced by the inclusion of 11 deleted scenes, most of which run between one and three minutes and were transferred in anamorphic widescreen from a video source (none of them are crucial to the plot, although one explains the genesis of Future Man’s name and another explains why he was arrested for Bob’s marijuana crop). You can explore the work that went into the film by looking through 42 pages of Anderson’s hand-drawn storyboards, as well as three-minutes of anamorphic test footage from a scene at the motel (too bad the whole film wasn’t shot this way because it looks gorgeous). Another interesting supplement is Murita Cycles, a 1978 short film by Barry Braverman about his father (the connection here is that it served as inspiration for the filmmakers during the production of Bottle Rocket). The title of the 10-minute featurette “The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1: Bottle Rocket” suggests that this will be the first in a series for Criterion. For those who don’t know, Shafrazi is Tony Shafrazi, owner of a New York art gallery, and the featurette consists of his enthusiastic thoughts on the film, which he calls “juicy,” compares to Godard’s Breathless, and describes as a dream. Lastly, there is a fantastic gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs taken by Laura Wilson, mother of Luke and Owen, that cover the production and screening of both the original short film and the feature (although I will note, as a current resident of Central Texas, that the motel scenes are mistakenly labeled as being in Fort Worth when it fact they are in Hillsboro). The insert booklet features an appreciation by Martin Scorsese and an essay by executive producer James L. Brooks, as well as a reproduction of Dignan’s “75-Year Plan” that is briefly glimpses near the beginning of the film.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Columbia Pictures and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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