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At a time when it seems as though half the new young filmmakers want to be Quentin Tarantino, while the other half want to be Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson's debut feature, Bottle Rocket, comes as a refreshing surprise.
In tone, style and content, this quirky little movie recalls the low-key comedies of Bill Forsythe (Local Hero, Housekeeping), the poet laureate of melancholy whimsy. Indeed, Anderson's film has more than a little in common with Forsythe's (and screenwriter John Sayles') Breaking In, the seriocomic story of an aging safecracker and his impatient apprentice. But Bottle Rocket can be enjoyed for its own unique merits, and not as a homage by some impressionable wannabe. Unlike most of the trendies who have been haunting the film-festival circuit in recent years, Anderson -- a Houston native and St. John's High School graduate -- obviously wants to make a movie about human beings, not other movies.
Working with co-screenwriter and fellow University of Texas alumnus Owen Wilson, Anderson has crafted a lightly comical entertainment about three Texas twentysomethings who drift into crime for lack of anything else to do. Wilson plays the self-proclaimed leader of the gang, Dignan, an amusingly eager fellow who evidences the starry-eyed enthusiasm of a high school basketball coach -- or a newly ordained missionary -- while describing his plans for criminal activity. Luke Wilson, Owen's younger brother, plays the more subdued and introspective Anthony, Dignan's longtime friend and reluctant cohort. Robert Musgrave rounds out the trio as Bob, an upper-middle-class nebbish who is mercilessly bullied by his older brother. Bob is not exactly the criminal type, but he does have a car. That alone is enough for Anthony and Dignan to accept him as their getaway driver.
Anthony can't help being skeptical, and just a bit nervous, when Dignan begins to talk about robbery plans that involve hang-gliding and pole-vaulting. But then again, Anthony is never quick to criticize, quite possibly because he doesn't trust his own judgment. As the movie begins, Anthony is being discharged from an Arizona mental hospital, where he was treated for "exhaustion." ("You haven't worked a day in your life!" snaps his kid sister. "How can you be exhausted?") And while he appears to be fully recovered, he's conspicuously lacking in self-direction. In sharp contrast, Dignan is positively brimming with the stuff. While accompanying Anthony on a bus trip back to Texas, Dignan proudly displays a notebook crammed with schemes and goals for the next 50 years. Following that, it doesn't take long for Anthony to fall under the spell of his friend's power of positive thinking.
Dignan is not the most practical-minded of criminals, and his attention span certainly leaves a lot to be desired. To his credit, he does manage to mastermind the successful heist of a bookstore, though just barely. This high-risk, low-yield armed robbery is the most amusing scene in Bottle Rocket, a movie that generates chuckles and giggles more often than boisterous belly laughs. Most of the humor in Anderson's comedy is subtle and underplayed. During the stickup, however, the tone briefly veers into deadpan farce, and the action is all the funnier for being such an obvious change of pace.
After the robbery, Dignan is exuberantly pleased to be a fugitive. ("On the run from Johnny Law! It ain't no trip to Cleveland!") It never crosses his mind that maybe, just maybe, he and his two friends really aren't the targets of some massive, statewide manhunt. He insists that they lie low in a motel several miles up the highway. Bob doesn't stay very long -- he has to return home to bail his brother out of jail -- but Anthony doesn't mind the extended vacation. As soon as he sees a lovely young chambermaid from Paraguay, he loses his heart. It matters little to him that Inez (Lumi Cavazos of Like Water For Chocolate) speaks little English, and he speaks hardly any Spanish. He is happy, he tells her, just to spend time "sitting here in the laundry room, watching you working on your vocabulary, eating these tamales." He would be even happier if Dignan didn't have a riskier robbery on the drawing boards.
There is a beguiling sweetness to the shy romance between Inez and Anthony, in large measure because Anderson presents it with such a matter-of-fact generosity of spirit. But his generosity does not end there. Throughout Bottle Rocket, Anderson refrains from earning cheap laughs at the expense of his characters and their narrowly focused, self-regarding schemes. They may seem slightly absurd in their impulsive behavior and grand delusions, but they are never made to come across as fools. Even Dignan -- played by Owen Wilson with an effective touch of Dennis Hopperish intensity -- turns out to be smarter and more steadfastly loyal than he initially seems. That is not enough to keep him out trouble, of course, but it is more than enough to keep him interesting and -- surprisingly enough -- likable.
James Caan, the only recognizable "name" in the cast, plays Mr. Henry, a smooth-talking career criminal who uses a lawn-maintenance company as his respectable front. From the moment he appears on screen, it is obvious that nothing this guy says, or even implies, should be trusted. And sure enough, Mr. Henry really does intend to exploit Dignan, who idolizes him, and the other two would-be desperadoes. But even in this seemingly predictable subplot, Anderson has a few tricks up his sleeve. In its own quietly resourceful, modestly ambitious way, Bottle Rocket is a genuine original.
Bottle Rocket. Directed by Wes Anderson. With James Caan, Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson. Rated R. 95 minutes.
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