If I could go back and view one director’s filmography for the first time, from beginning to his most recent work, it would be Wes Anderson. The eccentric filmmaker has so delicately refined and mastered his craft in the modern day that, when going back to his early features, you can’t help but sniff for similarities as if you’re a detective. It’s a two-fold problem; one in which I found myself when I doubled-back to view the films of Anderson I missed shortly after seeing Moonrise Kingdom. Talk about setting unrealistic expectations for myself.
With the release of Anderson’s newest film, Asteroid City, quickly approaching, I allowed myself something of a do-over: I would go back and watch the works of his that underwhelmed me the first time around. Keep in mind, I’ve never outright disliked any of Anderson’s films. At worst, I find them elusive and borderline empty in their cuteness. At best, however, I find them thematically dense and visually striking. I would’ve loved to see how I responded to Bottle Rocket, his directorial debut, during its initial release, when neither I nor the most optimistic cinephile could foresee the auteur he’d become.
Set in Arizona, Anderson’s first outing begins with the impassioned but guileless Dignan (Owen Wilson in his acting debut) helping his friend Anthony (Luke Wilson, also his first acting credit) “break out” of a voluntary psychiatric unit. He’s been staying there to help treat his self-described “exhaustion.” “How can you be exhausted?,” his little sister (Shea Fowler) asks him at one point. “You don’t even have a job.” The only thing dryer than Bottle Rocket‘s humor is the Arizona desert.
But back to the boys. Just before Anthony climbs out of the hospital’s second-story window, he tells his doctor that he “has to” go through with this escape plan because Dignan is so eager. It’s all part of his 75-year plan, which he passes to Anthony on the ride home. Dignan has dreams of pulling off several robberies and eventually linking up with Mr. Henry (James Caan), a part-time landscaper and full-time criminal.
To explain the concept of Bottle Rocket isn’t as fun as to just go with it. Anderson’s film very much has the same breezy, comforting qualities of Richard Linklater’s Slacker. It’s a project made by close friends, and manages to capture that suburban ennui held by privileged prep school boys who grew up with everything yet can’t think of anything to do. It takes one to know one.
So, Anthony goes along with Dignan’s heist plan. The two obtain a gun, let their mutual Bob (Robert Musgrave) come along because he’s the only one they know who has a car, and “successfully” rob a bookstore. This first robbery was funnier than I remembered. After being told that one of the stockers is in the literature section, Anthony finds him in the travel section.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in literature?,” he asks before shuffling him into the background. Then, while stumblebumming his way through the stickup as another work puts money into tiny plastic bags suited for pocketbooks, Dignan grows impatient: “Don’t you have any bags for like atlases or dictionaries?”
Bottle Rocket is on such a peculiar wave that, if you don’t catch it, you’re liable to be left adrift in its meandering.
After the heist, the three high-tail it out of town and shack up at a kitschy little motel on the outskirts of town. Things get complicated when Anthony meets and falls for a housekeeper named Inez (Lumi Cavazos), who speaks little English. Let’s talk about Inez for a minute. Although she’s not developed as well as Anthony or Dignan, she has an innocent charm about her that makes her likable. You get the sense she likes things neat and orderly, hence her line of work. Cavazos and Luke Wilson share several serene little moments together, none funnier than when Anthony tries to flirt with her during their first formal meeting and keeps inadvertently getting in her way when she tries to clean his room.
Anthony and Dignan also take grief from Bob’s older brother, Jon (Andrew Wilson), also known as “Future Man,” who sees the three of them for what they are: ne’er-do-wells with nothing better to do with their lives than follow a blonde boy with a buzz-cut who also sometimes wears a yellow jumpsuit for no apparent reason.
Eventually, the film builds to the boys getting involved with Mr. Henry, who lets them in on a heist that goes horribly awry. The entire sequence is made hilarious by how hairbrained it is, especially when their acquaintance (Kumar Pallana), claims to have lost his touch with safecracking. “Did you ever have a touch to lose?,” Dignan quips back.
The camera work is delicate and precise, but not in the same regard of Anderson’s later films. Many shots are positioned with pinpoint symmetry, with background aesthetics clearly in mind, but there are also a fair share of birds-eye and low-angle shots that are more uncommon in the auteur’s more contemporary works. Texas passes for Arizona, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman is attune to color and clarity throughout. For as humble as this flick is in its scope and size, it’s a beauty to look at and laugh with. Just don’t be surprised if it takes you a second go-round to do the latter.
NOTE: As of this writing, Bottle Rocket is streaming on Max (formerly HBO Max).
Starring: Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Robert Musgrave, Lumi Cavazos, Andrew Wilson, James Caan, Ned Dowd, Jim Ponds, and Kumar Pallana. Directed by: Wes Anderson.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!