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Bottle Rocket is an independent filmmaker's success story. The 1996 film made stars of Luke and Owen Wilson, and a noted director of Wes Anderson. They began with a short subject that won acclaim on the festival circuit, which led directly to interest from producers Polly Platt and James L. Brooks; two years later their short had been expanded into a Sony- funded full theatrical release. The filmmakers and producers were delighted by the end result, but it tested poorly in pre-release research. That's been the pattern for Wes Anderson's films ever since -- fanatic approval by a select audience, but no breakaway hits.
Bottle Rocket tells the odd tale of three 20-something upper middle class Texans in blind pursuit of a career as criminals, even though they barely have the maturity to function as adults. Fresh from a stay in a mental clinic, Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson) is a kind soul lacking in ambition or self-discipline. Rich kid Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) lives under the tyranny of his emotionally abusive older brother and has taken to cultivating marijuana in the back yard: "It's just an herb." Both young men are too passive to resist the manic schemes of their friend Dignan (Owen Wilson), who has concocted a 75-year success plan that begins with a series of armed robberies. Dignan is too self-absorbed to realize how idiotic this is. His buddies simply take the path of least resistance and accede to their friend's "positive energy' -- what's a buddy for?
Dignan begins his flaky crime spree by robbing Anthony's parents' house, just for practice. After a nearly bungled bookstore robbery they drive two hundred miles away because Dignan has decided that they need to "hide out". Bob wants to go back to help his brother, who has been arrested in connection with Bob's illicit pot farm. Anthony falls madly in love with a motel maid Inez (Lumi Cavazos of Like Water for Chocolate). As for Dignan, he's set on carrying through with the next step of his 75-year plan: use their "daring" raid on the bookstore to ally themselves with local crook Abe Henry (James Caan).
Not all viewers "get" Wes Anderson's quirky world. Bottle Rocket is the work of a close band of school friends and is clearly modeled after their particular group chemistry, complete with personal jargon, nicknames and verbal short cuts. Anthony calls Bob's creepy older brother "Future Man", a name fully explained in a deleted scene. More importantly, the "gang" dynamic encourages Bob and Anthony to alter their personalities to indulge Dignan, an erratic Alpha Male given to speaking about himself in the third person. Anthony and Bob give in to utterly stupid crime plans out of woefully misplaced loyalty.
When these nice guys come together, they become utter simpletons. Even Anthony's young sister can see that they're pitiful losers. A typical scene sees them discussing their criminal plans in public, loudly, and in front of strangers. Dignan has Bob and Anthony following his idiotic crime plans, dressing in bright jump suits and using communications devices that probably cost more than their robbery will yield.
Many viewers will reject Bottle Rocket's pathetically irresponsible criminals on strict moral grounds. But the boys are also innocent in the infantile sense, a peculiarly American trait. The utterly clueless Dignan maintains an irrational claim of innocence even as the police catch him red-handed, gun in hand, committing a robbery.
At the heart of the movie is Anthony's wonderful motel romance with Inez, a Paraguaya who knows little English. Inez can't resist Anthony's sweet advances; he follows her like a puppy as she cleans the rooms. Inez says in Spanish that she can't go with Anthony because he's unstable, like "a piece of paper blowing in the wind." Anthony's face drops with the busboy's translation: She says you're trash." Supporting the desperate romantic mood is Anderson's inspired use of Brian MacLean's LOVE song Alone Again Or as Anthony runs to meet his beloved. He's got a good heart; all he needs is a little common sense.
Director Anderson keeps the characters fresh and maintains a difficult tone -- a few mistakes and his show could become a bad Marx Brothers imitation. Anderson also maintains a consistent uncluttered look, and refrains from imposing an exterior visual style on what is essentially a character tale. The scenes are as diagrammatic as Dignan's deceptively orderly crime notebooks, written in his best 4th-grade hand lettering: "1. Remain flexible. 2. Don't be too derogatory."
Criterion's concurrent DVD and Blu-ray releases of Bottle Rocket present Anderson's first feature in pristine condition. The bright colors pop and the added clarity of Blu-ray brings out every nuance of facial expression.
Disc producer Susan Arosteguy has assembled a definitive set of extras. Barry Braverman's Making Of... docu covers the entire genesis of the project, with Polly Platt and James L. Brooks remembering that they found "the boys" living together "piled into" one apartment in Texas. James Caan can only recall that the movie was a quickie three-day shoot.
The original thirteen-minute short subject is also included, allowing us to see what impressed film festival judges. Eleven deleted scenes add breadth to the characters and delineate an abandoned plot thread wherein Dignan inadvertently leads the police straight to Bob's marijuana crop. Also present are a short Anamorphic Test made when the show was to be filmed in Panavision, storyboards and photos, including a photo selection by Laura Wilson. Braverrman's short film Murita Cycles is included, along with an odd piece entitled The Shafrazi Lectures Vol. 1: Bottle Rocket.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bottle Rocket Blu-ray rates:
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