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 Rocket“On 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 Rocket“This 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.”

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You Kill Me

You Kill Me movie poster


The first thing to say about You Kill Me is to give props to Ben Kingsley, if for no other reason than my fear that he will break my kneecaps if I don’t. Even after his terrifying turn in Sexy Beast, it’s still a surprise to see it is perfectly natural for him to take the role of Frank, an almost superhumanly talented mob assassin. For a man of a certain age who once played Ghandi, he can certainly act up some serious physical menace. But You Kill Me gives him a chance to enrich this character type instead of merely repeat it. In Sexy Beast, he was funny because he was so very extremely menacing. Here, his character is menacing and funny.

You Kill Me is a bicoastal film, literally illustrating Frank’s different worlds by setting the action in two different cities. In Buffalo, You Kill Me shares with The Sopranos a look into the operations of modern-day gangsters. Their lives are somewhat less exciting than the fantasy lucrative lifestyle seen in The Godfather and Scarface, but still sharply divided by cultural heritage and identity. Frank may seem to be a pathetic figure, but when sober, he is the sole factor keeping his small-time Polish crime family in business.

Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni in You Kill MeYeah, I find alcoholic assassins irresistible too

The problem is, he is sober less and less when the story opens, and his family must fix him in order to survive. So Frank is ordered from Buffalo to San Francisco to dry out, leaving behind his family (both by blood and criminal association) and yet quickly forging a new one: Dave (Bill Pullman), a shady real-estate dealer no better than a gangster himself; Tom (Luke Wilson), a gay fellow alcoholic; and implausible love interest Laurel (Téa Leoni, also an executive producer).

Ben Kingsley in You Kill MeThis man played Ghandi

The problem with Laurel is not only the creepy age differential (a long-standing Hollywood pox from which it seems even indies aren’t immune), but with Laurel’s underdeveloped character. What little we learn of her history (a recently deceased, unloved stepfather) seems insufficient to explain what makes her so lonely and desperate that she would attach herself to possibly the most unstable and unreliable person in the world. What happened to her to make her so blase and amoral that she clings so fervently to Frank and cross the country to risk her life for him?

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