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 scèné. 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.

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 blasé and amoral that she clings so fer­vently to Frank and cross the coun­try to risk her life for him?

Offi­cial movie site:

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