REVIEW: Bottle Rocket [1996]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 91 minutes | Release Date: February 21st, 1996 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Wes Anderson
Writer(s): Owen Wilson & Wes Anderson

“You know there’s nothing to steal from my mom and Craig”

Released two years after writer/director Wes Anderson brought its eponymous short film to Sundance, Bottle Rocket improves upon its predecessor’s shortcomings, makes good on its potential, and provides a prototype for the more commercial successes that would follow. A character-driven piece full of deflection and red herrings to confuse the audience into a state of unwitting ignorance just like that of the wannabe criminals at its center, the plot really becomes secondary to the relationships built along the way. It is the story of best friends Dignan (cowriter Owen Wilson) and Anthony (Luke Wilson) and their aspirations to be the kind of men people will talk about for years to come. And unlike most movies depicting sympathetic antiheroes who go in half-cocked and unsure, the consequences never get swept under the rug.

If you’ve seen the short you’ll be happy to know all the big moments are included. We get a condensed version stripped of excess to ready this duo and buddy Bob (Robert Musgrave) for bigger things. The only addition comes from the fact Anthony has just exited a voluntary stint at a psychiatric center to combat the depression his boring life in Texas has cultivated. Dignan is of course the man to welcome him home and wastes no time roping him into a practice heist at a familiar locale. From here we glean more about who these guys are during a pinball game (Dignan’s short temper but even shorter penchant for forgiveness coupled with an inability to think small and Anthony’s huge heart and overwhelming guilt leading him astray despite attempts to be good) and eventually watch as they rob a bookstore.

Where these open-ended antics were enough for the short to give its audience something to chew on before these over-excited, grown children escalate their illegal activities or stop after one adrenaline rush in our imaginations, this new iteration needs more. Anderson and Wilson therefore give us Mr. Henry (James Caan), a former boss of Dignan’s who’s supposedly a low-rent crime boss on the side. The ever-optimistic and blinded buffoon that Dignan is, he believes a successful theft by he, Anthony, and Bob will earn them a place on Henry’s crew. Figuring the heat would be “too hot” after excising a few hundred bucks from the bookstore, however, they decide to lay low on the lam first. It’s here we discover their full psychological make-ups—Bob’s misplaced loyalty, Anthony’s yearning for love, and Dignan’s desire to be part of a team.

The laughs ratchet up courtesy of a bilingual love affair between Anthony and the motel housekeeper (Lumi Cavazos‘ Inez) who understand little of what each is saying above the physical attraction they harbor. Lies Dignan has been telling are revealed, Bob’s shortcomings exposed, and the fact that Anthony wants to be better than a two-bit thief begin to overshadow the comedy of errors at its back. We forget these guys just stole money at gunpoint as they transform back into the eccentric suburbanites who couldn’t survive on their own if their lives depended on it. We watch as their friendship is tested, blown up, and patched back together once cooler heads prevail and witness how emotional each gets when the smallest issue arises to trip them up. When the opportunity for glory arises, though, it’s too hard for any to ignore.

And this is where Bottle Rocket shines: the exuberant joy we see on the Wilson brothers’ faces when it comes time to act. We know Anthony pretty much just goes along with Dignan to keep his feelings from getting hurt, but you can’t deny his own excitement. This is probably what they felt on the schoolyard, acting out on the latter’s crazy schemes to get girls or prank kids with the former reveling in every second he knows is wrong. Anthony is Dignan’s protector, the guy who guesses the end result and does his best to prevent the pain that most likely awaits them. But the only thing he can’t stand more than the consequences of failure is his buddy’s forlorn face of defeat when disappointment leaves him alone and unwanted.

The supporting cast bolsters their antics with small roles that leave memorable marks. One thing Anderson has improved upon over the years is integrating these bit parts into the plot better so the ensemble can become more sprawling than supportive. You see signs of it here with Bob’s bullying brother Future Man (Andrew Wilson) popping up at times in the background as well as becoming a crucial plot device; Caan’s Mr. Henry and his flashy appeal tearing down our defenses; and co-conspirators on the climactic heist in Applejack (Jim Ponds) and Kumar (Kumar Pallana) providing fun comic relief for the sake of the joke above all else. Even that final heist becomes more of a gag than some grand bit of closure—a reason for them to get together and show their flaws one more time.

Whatever their defects, Anthony, Dignan, and Bob are still extremely likeable. You want them to be okay but know it’s impossible. Whether burned by the cops, each other, or lost love, something has to happen to open their eyes to the error of their ways. One could even say Bottle Rocket is Anderson and Wilson’s cautionary morality play on crime, telling us the truth about the dangers hidden beneath its allure of fast money for little work. And if there were ever two guys to take the wheel and drive such ill-fated action home it’s Owen and Luke. It’s hard to believe neither acted before as each goes in front of the camera straight from college, but they handle their roles with confidence and alongside Anderson usher in a new cult of cinematic hipster style.

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