★★★ Bottle Rocket is not a film I would have appreciated when it came out back in 1996. At the time, I worked at Blockbuster Video and distinctly remember seeing it on the shelf in the "Employee Picks" section. Like the rest of the staff, I had my own shelf and was meticulous in keeping it up to date with the perfect representation of my movie tastes. Bottle Rocket was on my manager's shelf. But no one in my circle of friends was talking about it, and to be honest I was content to revel in the multiplex of 1996 with films like Fargo, Scream and The Rock, rather than venturing to the art house.
Bottle Rocket is Wes Anderson's first film. As a latecomer to Mr. Anderson's work, it is the last film of his I needed to see to check them all off my list. And though it's not as good as his best works, like Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Darjeeling Limited, it's a notch above The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a film of his I certainly don't have much love for.
Probably the thing I like best about Bottle Rocket is seeing the birth of Wes Anderson's signature style. There are pieces of all his future films in here. Dignan (Owen Wilson) is very similar to Wilson's character in The Darjeeling Limited, with his plans, schedules and somewhat selfish good intentions. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bottle Rocket opens with a robbery. Here, Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan rob a bookstore.
The film is also shot in a similar style. Though while some of those Anderson touches are here, like the shot directly over drawers and suitcases opening, there are no notable tracking shots, something that's become a staple of his. There's also an absence of structural cross sections of buildings and the like.
The writing and dialogue feels familiar as well, but the location is less exotic than his bigger budgets allow him now. Here we're somewhere in low budget indie movie middle America.
One thing that Anderson hasn't changed is the score. The music is a perfect match for what's on display here. The scene where they're driving down the road throwing fireworks out the windows, has Oliver Onions' song, Zorro is Back, accentuating the whimsy and fun of the unknown that lies ahead. Anderson's music is always playful and feels of a time that exists outside of our own, even though some of the songs can be familiar. It's of a place where consequences don't seem as dangerous as they should, where optimism and self discovery are on the forefront of every character's mind, and love, well...there's always love.
Here the central romance is between Anthony and Inez, the motel housekeeper. Their first "date" involves Anthony following Inez around, helping her make up people's rooms and talking non-stop, even though she doesn't understand much English, nor he, Spanish. But we like them together, and want very much for Anthony to leave Dignan's side and stand by the normality of a life with Inez.
But Dignan makes a strong play for Anthony's attention promising, "Dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers...can you see how incredible this is going to be?" And though there are some moments, including a few of the heretofore mentioned elements, along with some sublime bright yellow jumpsuits, following Dignan is a bad idea and Anthony knows it, even though he's helpless to resist.
Both Dignan and Anthony have a history of mental hospitals, but they're played in a fun way, and we don't ever really fear for any kind of relapse. It's just an easy backstory to make both of them a little off, a little more than eccentric. Of course, things must take a turn for the worse and soon Dignan is told, "Your 75 year plan does not seem to be working."
My biggest complaint about Bottle Rocket is something Anderson has fixed in his later works. Here the boys are living slightly outside of reality, but there are a few moments where the real world pokes it's head in, like when two guys show up to make fun of Dignan, and especially when the police show up. Moments like this promise real world consequences for a story that should exist within it's own reality, and not ours.