Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket movie poster


Wes Ander­son and co-writer Owen Wilson’s fea­ture debut is based on their 1992 short film of the same name. Like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Quentin Tarantino’s Reser­voir Dogs, Bot­tle Rock­et is Anderson’s urtext. His sig­na­ture style is already ful­ly present: metic­u­lous­ly con­struct­ed of pri­ma­ry col­ors, writ­ten in tor­rents of words, and shot per­pen­dic­u­lar­ly against exact­ing mise en scène. The Roy­al Tenebaums is the only of Anderson’s films to fea­ture par­ents as fea­tured char­ac­ters through­out, but Rush­more, The Dar­jeel­ing Lim­it­ed, and Bot­tle Rock­et all con­cern mis­fit sib­lings with large­ly absent par­ents. Like the Tenen­baums and the Whit­mans (of The Dar­jeel­ing Lim­it­ed), the Adams broth­ers are priv­i­leged yet seem to pos­sess noth­ing of their own.

Dig­nan (Owen Wil­son) throws in his lot with local crook Mr. Hen­ry (James Caan), who proves both a bad boss and poor father sub­sti­tute. Dig­nan forms an ama­teur gang of sorts with broth­er Antho­ny (Luke Wil­son) — an aim­less young man suf­fer­ing from self-diag­nosed “exhaus­tion,” and their pushover friend Bob Map­plethor­pe (Robert Mus­grave) — of use most­ly because he has access to a car. Every detail of Dignan’s grand scheme for his life is plot­ted out in the hand­writ­ten man­i­festo “75-Year Plan — Notes Re: Careers.” As he tells Antho­ny, “I think we both respond well to struc­ture.”

Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson in Bottle RocketOn the run from John­ny Law… ain’t no trip to Cleve­land.”

They feel the urge to steal (from a chain book store, hilar­i­ous­ly, and even from their own par­ents’ home), not so much for mon­ey itself but to enable their fan­ta­sy of liv­ing inde­pen­dent­ly on the road. Their dream is that being on the lam would pro­vide the excite­ment they imag­ine their lives lack. But Dignan’s pre­cise vision of the future is dis­rupt­ed at every turn. The most cat­a­clysmic event of all is when the roman­tic Antho­ny becomes smit­ten with motel maid Inez (Lumi Cava­zos), and he gives up most of their ill­got­ten spoils to help her. Dignan’s own future hasn’t fac­tored in love; even­tu­al­ly he real­izes he must set off on his own to find his des­tiny.

The 2007 Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion edi­tion reprints a 1999 appre­ci­a­tion by pro­duc­er James L. Brooks, in which he describes how the neo­phyte film­mak­ers had lit­tle notion of how movies are actu­al­ly writ­ten and made, espe­cial­ly any aspect there­of involv­ing cre­ative com­pro­mise. Their first draft was report­ed­ly so wordy that a sim­ple table read­ing proved epic:

the longest enter­tain­ment known to man, beat­ing Wagner’s Ring cycle before we reached the halfway point of the read­ing. By the time we approached the last scene, all the water pitch­ers had been emp­tied, yet voic­es still rasped from overuse, and there were peo­ple in the room show­ing the phys­i­cal signs of star­va­tion.

The script was deemed unfilmable, begin­ning a long process of urg­ing Ander­son and Wil­son to cut mate­r­i­al they held dear, and they held every­thing dear. The movie still seemed doomed even after suc­cess­ful­ly shoot­ing a work­able script. When ear­ly cuts test­ed poor­ly before audi­ences, Brooks tried to con­sole Ander­son and Wil­son by telling them that ear­ly feed­back for E.T.: The Extra-Ter­res­tri­al was also poor, but it was saved by the music and a mem­o­rable logo. Indeed, Brooks cred­its the score by Mark Moth­ers­baugh of Devo for help­ing make the film work.

James Caan and Owen Wilson in Bottle RocketThis seems like a nice soirée”

James Caan only worked on the film for three days, and still seems bemused by the whole thing. But the result has proven a cult clas­sic, and launched the careers of not only Ander­son but also the Wil­son broth­ers. The Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion edi­tion also includes Mar­tin Scorcese’s 2000 appre­ci­a­tion from Esquire, in which he cred­its Ander­son with a rare, true affec­tion for his char­ac­ters. Dignan’s belief in his imper­vi­ous­ness is the flm’s “tran­scen­dent moment”: “they’ll nev­er catch me, man, ’cause I’m fuck­ing inno­cent.”

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.