Three misguided friends embrace a life of petty crime.
“They’re not really criminals, but everybody’s got to have a dream.” That’s the tagline from Wes Anderson’s debut, “Bottle Rocket”, featuring fellow first-timers Luke and Owen Wilson. The story is as simple as the slacker minds of its three central characters. Anthony (Luke Wilson) is a volunteer mental patient recovering from a nervous breakdown. Luke’s real-life brother, Owen, plays Dignan, the Moe Stooge of this slaphappy trio.
Dignan personifies his freakish need to control as a character that seems a toy short of a happy meal. Robert Musgrave acts as a catalyst for Anthony’s patience and Dignan’s frustrations in the role of Bob, a rich kid Dignan hires as a getaway driver.Getting away from what? That seems to be what Anthony’s little sister asks him when she learns of his recent “escape” from the voluntary mental institute. To appease Dignan’s deranged thirst for adventure and escapism, Anthony climbs out of the hospital window for fugitive effect. “But, you know, can you do it fast?” the orderly asks Anthony when he catches him roping together his bed sheets. “This doesn’t look so good.”
The fact that Anthony cannot escape unnoticed as a voluntary patient, coupled with Dignan’s neglect on reality, suggest that these two guys are not the criminal masterminds they aspire to be. And this beginning scene sets the pace nicely for this enjoyable caper. You can’t really call it a crime caper since the characters are so incapable of their goals, that the movie is more about cluelessness than crime.
Once the pace is set, the story adjusts itself as a road trip of self-discovery. Anthony finds love in the form of a Hispanic hotel maid. Bob realizes that he cannot hide from the domineering responsibilities of his family. Only Dignan seems adamant about forming a crime syndicate that is geared to . . . well, we’re not actually clear what Dignan wants to do. Like Anthony and Bob, we begin to understand that Dignan’s grand plan of organized crime does not seem to work.
Indeed, their crime spree is destroyed when Bob learns that his careless decision to grow pot in his parents’ garden leads to Future Man’s arrest. He abandons the gang by sneaking out to help his brother. Anthony romances the maid while Dignan lamely fires off bottle rockets to satisfy his Zen for lawless behavior. When the gang reconvenes at their hidden lair (Bob’s parents’ house), they plan out their big score for Mr. Henry (James Caan), a real criminal with more in mind than his new crew can anticipate.
The show-stopping heist itself is a marvel in contemporary comedy. From casing the joint (notice that Dignan is wearing a tan blazer and tie for the surveillance work) to their completely flawed break-in, the third act is ribald with hilarious ineptitude. Dignan’s attempted escape from the police is indicative of Anderson’s incredible talent in matching music with his moving images. As Owen Wilson flees, the rock component of The Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man” comes alive and dictates the action with great effect.
While “Bottle Rocket” may be similar to other slacker comedies in terms of character, it is more dynamic in terms of style. The ambitions of the heroes may be frivolous and shiftless, but you can admire their determinations with pity and laughter at the same time. As a lover of comedy, I certify that is no easy feat.
Anderson and the Wilson brothers originally released “Bottle Rocket” as a short in 1994 at the Sundance Film Festival, after winning support from fellow Texan filmmaker L.K. Kit Carson. Once they found their audience, big shots like James L. Brooks got on board and helped to ignite “Bottle Rocket” as a feature release from Columbia Pictures. From there, it won affection and praise from the video market and fans of independent cinema, who were sick of the quick-fix comedy formula.