Bottle Rocket – 1996 – dir. Wes Anderson
Before studios trusted Wes Anderson with millions, assured his particular type of humor would return their invested interested, there was Bottle Rocket. Largely underrated and now assuming the glory of cult-status, it is a vital piece of Anderson’s pantheon of work, but most importantly, Bottle Rocket is hilarious. Before the young director had a strong enough reputation to hire an ensemble cast, or the time to selectively craft the composition of each individual frame, all never mind shots, all he had were two buddies who acted and a simple story about love. What became of our auteur is movie history, but to watch Bottle Rocket now is akin to a treasure hunt with the casual surfacing of Wes Anderson’s primitive, distinctive humor hidden underneath a low-budget surface.
Chemistry between characters is always important. Unlike Zissou’s selfish vision of an on-camera father-son relationship to help promote his newest documentary, the Wilson brothers’ casual symbiotic friendship on screen is difficult to match. Naturally, Luke and Owen want the film to succeed, and their ambition is translated into the perfect timing the two have during their comedic banter. During the Altman-esque dialogue Dignan (Owen) and Anthony (Luke) share, constantly arguing with one another (most likely with the aid of genuine sibling quarrels), Wes Anderson translates the strengths of his characters to the screen. Granted, although James L. Brooks has been given a fair share of credit for producing the gentle quips and poignant punch-lines, Wes Anderson still musters up some serious comedy that carries the entirety of Bottle Rocket.
The young auteur could never convince studios to lend him enough money to master the composition, color and aesthetic he probably wished for in those days. Still, he does what he can to manipulate the feel of the film, with the array of uniforms his characters establish for themselves through their costumes. The mise-en-scene is important to Wes Anderson, even without a budget. Wait until Dignan shows up in his yellow-jumpsuit. The color leaps off the picture like a perpetual joke waiting to be called upon. Perhaps this explains why Futureman, (played by Andrew, the oldest Wilson brother,) jokes about the new outfit, exploding amidst the scene of the typically dreary film, almost self-reflecting the peculiar style Anderson will one day wholly manipulate. Nevertheless, the composition doesn’t stop there. In fact, the small-snippets of framing that will later establish the Wes Anderson look are half the fun to find. The above shot of the notebook and radio, complete with rambling dialogue and surprisingly appropriate music that consume the narrative, are definitely present.
Of course, then there’s the story. No story is worth telling without character, and each of them have enough to establish the audience’s interest, especially when it comes down to the subtle, secondary plot that involves Anthony’s newfound love, Inez. When the beautiful girl from Paraguay shows up as a hotel maid while Dignan and Anthony are out on the lamb, (after a successful bookstore robbery) the tone-shifts. Suddenly Anthony’s existential breakdown (told in the lightest, most illusive fashion possible) becomes clear. The simplicity of this solution is a saving grace to, what I’m sure most audiences at the time thought, was a somewhat confusing case of being displaced. “When are you coming home?” Anthony’s sister asks him. “I can’t come home, Grace. I’m an adult.” Ultimately its Inez’s love that sets Anthony free. Except then there’s also Dignan. Left out and seeking a life of crime, not for the spoils, but the sheer romantic excitement from being a reckless law-breaker, Dignan flees – a lone-cowboy that walks off into the fields desperate to find a new partner that won’t drop him at the first sign of true love.
Bottle Rocket is Wes Anderson’s open invitation for the audience to find promise in a new, ambition auteur. It’s a wonderful story to look back on, as the Wilson brothers’ and Anderson’s first step to stardom. Take away the money, strip away set design, elaborate locations and generally any stylistic choices famous directors can choose from when given an infinite amount of funding, and what you have left is an honest effort to tell an entertaining story. Although it’s not readily apparent, Bottle Rocket encompasses love, loss, excitement, danger and all the genuine, awkward humor that comes along with it. Bottle Rocket is the premiere monument to the ever-blossoming career of Wes Anderson and a film that can be watched again and again. Within its meager budget are the buds of a meticulous style waiting to flourish. Just watch it, however many times it takes.