"They'll never catch me, man. ‘Cause I'm f***ing innocent."
"Bottle Rocket" hit the indie circuit and video stores (yes, videos as in VHS tapes) when I first attended film school, and it was love at first viewing both for me and everyone else I knew in school. Wes Anderson was the new Quentin Tarantino, warmer and fuzzier but every bit as hip.
I have long since fallen out of love with Tarantino and, to a large extent, with Wes Anderson whose movies have degenerated into po-mo "weird for the sake of being weird" (as Mo Syzlak would say) but "Bottle Rocket" has lost none of its charm for me. Along with "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" it's one of the most endearing buddy movies I have seen. As Anthony and Dignan, Luke and Owen Wilson aren't exactly a match for Clint and the Dude, but they'll always occupy a soft spot in my heart.
Expanded from a short film, "Bottle Rocket" is all about the friendship between its two young male leads. Dignan has come to help Anthony escape from a mental institution where he has gone for a rest. Never mind that Anthony is scheduled to be released that day anyway; Dignan's on the job and he's going to make sure his friend breaks out of the hoosegow.
They re-connect over a series of petty crimes, which includes Anthony robbing his own house, with the ultimate goal of impressing Mr. Henry (James Caan), who runs a local lawn-care company/crime ring. Though Anthony is the nominal lead, it's always Dignan who has the ambition, Dignan who has the notebook with a 75-year plan, and Dignan who refers to himself in the third person.
The film reflects its short-form roots with a creaky second act that consists almost entirely of the boys (along with their accomplice Bob, played by Robert Musgrave) staying at a motel where Anthony falls in love while Dignan figures out how to stay ahead of Johnny Law. It's lumpy, it's creaky, but it also works because of the chemistry between the Wilson brothers who make awfully convincing non blood relation friends.
Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the script with Anderson, is undeniably the star. With his slightly goofy, untraceable accent and his penchant for wearing funny uniforms (soon to become a Wes Anderson signature), Dignan is a modern Pangloss who looks on every setback as an opportunity, and sees the world as the perfect place for… well, for Dignan. He's a two-bit (or maybe even one-bit) crook whose only discernible abilities are a bull-headed capacity for self-delusion and an easy-going charm but damned if they aren't enough.
"Bottle Rocket" launched Wes Anderson to instant indie stardom, and it's safe to count him as one of the more influential young American directors of the past 15 years, though it hasn't always been a good influence. Anderson is one of the exemplars of "indie quirk," a formula that has come to define far too much of modern American so-called independent cinema. Get a bunch of weird characters together and have them act weird, bag yourself a Jury Prize at Sundance and maybe nab a pity nomination at the Oscars (hello Little Miss Juno.)
Anderson managed to make it work until the center collapsed in the exasperating "Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004). As Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly observed about Anderson's work, "Each successive movie seems further removed from real human behavior" though, as Rosenbaum also noted, there's still an air of earnestness to everything that Anderson does. His characters, non-human as they may be, are still desperately trying to connect to each other, to an authentic experience in a world of irony. My friend and teacher Dr. Warren Buckland has dubbed this strand of indie filmmaking "New Sincerity," though it is increasingly difficult to separate the sincere from the absurd in Anderson's pastel-colored, fun house mirror universe. "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007) was not exactly a ringing success but it did mark a return from the "Zissou" wilderness, so there's still reason to take a page out of old Dignan's book and hope for the best.
"Bottle Rocket" is filled with memorable shots and scenes. The bookstore robbery, the boys out shooting guns, the confused safecracker Kumar (Kumar Pallana) standing in the foreground as the elevator descends and muttering "Man, I blew it." If the overall story doesn't amount to much, it's moments like these, and the abiding friendship between Anthony and Dignan that make "Bottle Rocket" one of the signature American films of the 1990s, and certainly one of my favorite.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Comparing this one to my old Sony DVD of the film shows the world of improvement that Criterion offers. It looks fabulous with sharp colors and crystal clear image quality. Of course, Criterion has also released "Bottle Rocket" on Blu-Ray which looks even better and costs the same.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The DVD producers decided to model the disc's design after the film and while I respect the effort, the final result is pretty annoying. The menus are sketch drawings that approximate settings from the film. The menu on disc two is laid out like a schematic of the bookstore that Anthony and Dignan rob, and it proves both hard to read and difficult to navigate. The insert booklet, with a brief tribute by Martin Scorsese, and an essay by James Brooks, is designed like Dignan's hand-printed notebook and is also not very easy to read.
There are still quite a few extras in this two-disc collection, however.
Disc One presents the digitally restored film along with a commentary track by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson.
Disc Two kicks off with a "Making of" Featurette" (26 min.) that covers the usual ground that such things cover.
The real jewel here is the original 13-minute "Bottle Rocket" short that Anderson used as a calling card to help raise enough cash for a feature. Many of the scenes in the short are reproduced almost exactly in the full version of the film, but it's still fun to watch the Wilson brothers riff off each other here.
The disc also includes 11 deleted scenes which can either be played separately or all at once.
The rest of the features are "weird for the sake of being weird" (apologies again to Moe).
"Murita Cycles" is a 27-minute short documentary about Barry Braverman's father, a bicycle shop owner in Staten Island. Braverman, who also directed the "Making of" featurette, is a friend and collaborator of Anderson's and apparently the short provided some inspiration for "Bottle Rocket."
"Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1: Bottle Rocket" gives artist and curator Tony Shafrazi ten minutes to tell us why he loves "Bottle Rocket" so much. I could have lived without this one.
The disc also includes an Anamorphic Test, a scene shot for wide-screen Panavision, an ambitious idea that Anderson dropped early in the production.
The disc also includes galleries of photos and storyboards.
It's nice to revisit and old favorite and not be disappointed in the least. Powered by an exceptional performance by Owen Wilson, "Bottle Rocket" is funny, sweet and thoroughly enjoyable. Though I like "The Royal Tennenbaums" quite a bit (2001), I don't think Anderson has ever come particularly close to matching this debut feature. Unlike Dignan, the film is an unqualified winner.
Note: Criterion has also released "Bottle Rocket" in Blu-Ray.