Bottle Rocket (1996)

bottle rocket movie review 2

One-line review: Slipping on a banana peel contest. 

Wes Anderson’s first film (co-written with college roommate Owen Wilson) is about three friends who want to find meaning through a life of crime but cannot overcome their inherent goodness. They are overgrown boys, drifters, weak, and their sum is greater than their parts, both in stupidity and sweetness. Dignan (Owen Wilson) is the sub-par brains of the team, Anthony (Luke Wilson) the heart on the team’s sleeve, and the super-rich Bob (Robert Maplethorpe) the team’s financier. Dignan weaves his charm over the other two, who find his enthusiasm irresistible, although even Anthony’s baby sister can tell he’s a liar. 

The film is based on a short film that premiered at Sundance, although Sundance didn’t pick up the feature film, much to Andersen’s chagrin. A resounding flop on its release, the film has since then gone on to become a cult favorite (Scorcese has it in his top ten picks of the decade). It’s hard to believe that this is the first time outing of both the director and the cast. Goofball comedy can go terribly wrong in inexperienced hands, but no one misses a beat here, with each character digging deep into their sweet side. Dignan’s ego openly struggles with his earnestness, while Anthony’s sympathy for Dignan makes it difficult for him to resist his risky ventures. And Bob’s inherent generosity makes him fund Dignan’s projects, although he never gets any respect. 

The film is multi-layered; the characters grow in the backdrop of their botched heists. Dignan redeems himself by risking prison to save his accomplice, Applejack. Anthony on the other hand falls madly in love with a Paraguayan housekeeper, Inez (an excellent and luminous Lumi Cavazos). Luke Wilson nails the part of the smitten lover who is delighted to make beds and do laundry with Inez. The scenes involving the translator Rocky (a superb Donny Carcedo) are the most hilarious and yet moving. Bob loses everything (his house is robbed by Mr. Henry (James Caan) while they are away at the heist, yet it brings him and his bully big brother close: nothing’s more joyful than shopping for a new piano otter after the old one’s stolen.  

Anderson’s now famed and distinctive frames don’t stand out in this film, although a crew member recalls Anderson filling a wall with magazine cuttings to get the colors of the scenes right. But the core of a Wes Anderson film: the comedy of the inherent goodness of flawed people is already fully developed. Watching the movie after 25 years also gives you some perspective on the vagaries of the entertainment industry. The film got a new lease of life when an LA Times critic praised the film and panned Sundance for rejecting it. Anderson and a couple of the Wilson brothers are now major forces to be reckoned with, while James Caan, at that time a casting coup for the rookie director, has faded away and rues how he is today remembered for his Bottle Rocket role. Same with Robert Musgrave, who seems like a one-movie wonder. Anderson claims to be still traumatized from seeing audiences walk out in the middle of the film when it first screened. He also held a special screening for Pauline Kael, whom he admired, but apparently, she was less than impressed. But Anderson prevailed and thrived by following his passion. Will the Bottle Rocket characters also eventually find redemption? The film makes you root for them. 

Why watch it? To see the perfect cast (with the help of a surefooted rookie director) pull off a successful acting heist.    

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