Bottle Rocket (1996, Wes Anderson)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

I wish there were more movies like Bottle Rocket, the caper comedy about a couple of loser small-time crooks that launched Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson’s careers — more movies with its winning but humorous quietness, its serious interest in and empathy toward its well-drawn characters, its absence of foolish contrivance, and its courting of an idea of film comedy that relies on neither obnoxiousness nor cynicism. It’s a sincere and beautifully direct film; Wes Anderson’s other movies have varied wildly from the artful and inspired to the turgid and bizarre, but he’s never quite recaptured this essence of fleeting joy and sadness. Buried underneath its naturalistic but clever dialogue and farcical action sequences is a subtly devastating tragedy of a stymied life relieved only by naive hope for the impossible. Anderson and Wilson’s script walks a tightrope — it reveals everything through characterization and does not overreach. What we learn of the three overgrown boys at the center, we don’t learn because they say it; we learn it gradually, as we come to know and care about them. That’s an incredibly arduous process, and evidently came about through extensive script work imposed by the production company, Gracie Films.

As you probably know, Gracie Films is the home of filmmaker and TV producer James L. Brooks, known above all else for his attachment to realistic characters and his tireless devotion to tightest possible scripting. He and Polly Platt discovered Anderson and Wilson through a short-subject version of Bottle Rocket and holed the two of them up in an office at Sony Pictures until the screenplay for the feature version was perfect. It’s not at all hard to see Brooks’ influence, given how real we come to find the troubled and lovesick Anthony (Luke Wilson), the perpetually pensive Bob (Robert Musgrave), and in particular Owen Wilson’s staggeringly multilayered Dignan, a tirelessly optimistic force of nature whose mixture of egomania and precious wide-eyed enthusiasm inevitably bring him head to head with catastrophe.

The extensive rewriting and painstaking analysis paid off: the script for the film is simply remarkable, and even against the worthy competition of Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, this is the most strongly written of all Anderson’s films to date. Crucially, it never once takes the easy or obvious route, right down to making the sole successful robbery in the film a pitiful heist at a tiny bookstore. It would be easy to write Dignan as a man who’s never crushed or never brought down, but that’s merely the image he wishes to project; he loses his grip and curses the others, and the events of this seemingly lighthearted film derail and destroy him — and sensing his gradual recognition of this is what makes this film such an endearing experience. Brooks’ films frequently carry such biting, hidden detail that becomes ever more nuanced and fascinating on repeated viewings, but none of his other works are as economical as Anderson’s film — and the visual restraint is uncharacteristic of both Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s later films. The camera seems to capture a world that’s lived in and doesn’t call attention to itself, inventive color filtering aside. In essence, the two sensibilities collide marvelously well, to the point that you wish they’d collaborate again even now that Brooks probably needs Anderson for image purposes far more than the opposite.

We spend less time with Dignan than with Anthony, whose love story with a motel maid named Inez (Lumi Cavazos, whose career depressingly stalled after this) dominates the second act; and less still with Bob. But our relationships with all three of them are intimate and detailed — there’s a poignancy to Musgrave’s portrayal, for instance, that both sets up and belies his positioning as a piece of frivolous comic relief, and an ingenious subtlety to his slow escape from his domineering brother Future Man (Andrew Wilson). Anthony never seems at home as a petty crook, and his romanticism sets him on the opposite path from Dignan’s self-destruction. The supporting players merely orbit them but leave an enormous impression, from Anthony’s scolding, mature little sister Grace to chiding mobster Mr. Henry (James Caan, playing a perfect conniving pseudo-nice guy in a far more interesting and witty turn than his work in The Godfather).

Still, Dignan’s plight is the film’s. Anthony and Inez’s love affair has a wondrously vivid phone-tag climax, but never achieves an onscreen triumph; Inez, indeed, shows some fleeting signs of a deep inner life but sadly sets up Anderson’s near-cluelessness with regard to female characters. Her only purpose seems to be to add sincerity and sweetness and humility to Anthony. Consequently, the sequence in which Dignan scooters up in a jumpsuit only to be mocked and teased by Future Man is in many ways the idea of the film personified: how the adorable good faith of a healing person is so easily made pathetic, deflated by the unfeeling. That it’s also rather hilarious — especially Owen Wilson’s dejected correction as the macho oafs laugh it up — is only fitting: the entire film starts out generating bemused chuckles but eventually snowballs into outright bumbling hilarity as the situation devolves, like Libeled Lady or The Awful Truth. All of the humor comes from precisely the same character complexities that make the pathos work.

You may not remember Bottle Rocket as being so superb as it is, in which case I’d urge you to see it again and watch it closely. It’s such a good-hearted and enrapturingly sad delight, like Donald Westlake reimagined by Francois Truffaut, all highly cinematic but strangely languid and graceful, especially for its genre and for the Reservoir Dogs era of “hip” cinema. Along with Brooks, one is reminded of Hal Ashby (especially The Last Detail) for the way the camera captures such strange wisps of humanity, joy and regret while simply drifting through lives. And if nothing else, this is still about as heartbreaking as Owen Wilson has ever been onscreen — it’s the comedy of pain, all of it, and for some odd reason it makes you feel utterly elated.

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