A clueless trio's inept pursuit of a life of crime in suburban Dallas provides the basis for comedy in Wes Anderson's debut, "Bottle Rocket." Full of surprising warmth and charm, unexpected plot turns and droll characters that bounce off each other in refreshing ways, this genre-defying Columbia pickup may struggle to overcome its lack of an obvious marketing handle.

A clueless trio’s inept pursuit of a life of crime in suburban Dallas provides the basis for comedy in Wes Anderson’s debut, “Bottle Rocket.” Full of surprising warmth and charm, unexpected plot turns and droll characters that bounce off each other in refreshing ways, this genre-defying Columbia pickup may struggle to overcome its lack of an obvious marketing handle. But key critical support and good word of mouth could help it reach a small but appreciative young audience.

Unlike characters in the similarly Texan-set “Slackers,” Anderson’s naive stooges all have a goal to pursue, whether it’s love or friendship or just criminal notoriety. What they do share with the earlier pic is their constant verbosity. Dialogue here is smart but not contrived, with a steady stream of enjoyably deadpan, unforced humor.

After what appears to have been an enforced rest in a recovery facility, twentysomething Anthony (Luke Wilson) rejoins his criminally inclined friend Dignan (co-scripter Owen C. Wilson) on the outside. Soon after, they pull off a neighborhood burglary in a home later revealed to belong to Anthony’s parents. Another eager recruit, Bob (Robert Musgrave), is brought in as a getaway driver before the band hits a bookstore.

Perceiving themselves as infinitely cool but in reality clumsy and none too bright, the armed robbers head for an out-of-town motel, where Anthony’s dreamily romantic instincts fix on Paraguayan maid Inez (Lumi Cavazos). Complications back home take Bob away from his two friends, and Dignan’s discovery that Anthony has given the bookstore cash to Inez leads to a bitter split.

Back in Dallas, the three patch things up. Dignan persuades the others to take part in an elaborate robbery orchestrated by crime guru Mr. Henry (James Caan), who runs a landscaping firm as a front for his illicit operations. Emboldened by outlaw spirit but impeded by incompetence, Dignan gets himself arrested trying to follow through even after the group has botched and abandoned the enterprise. Mr. Henry, in the meantime, has emptied the contents of Bob’s house.

Anderson’s confident handling of the material shows a keen grasp of low-key comedy. This is evident both in memorable setups like the bookstore robbery under the noses of curiously unfazed clerks and the chaos of the climactic, failed safecracking job, as well as in smaller, sweeter moments like Anthony’s meeting with his concerned kid sister and his resulting crisis over her cynicism. The desert interlude in which his romance with Inez takes place is a little weak next to its more tightly focused surroundings, but even this manages to conjure a certain goofy poignancy.

Characterizations benefit from an obvious affection and generosity, and each of the trio has his own highly individual quirks. The ensemble spirit of what’s clearly a core cast of old friends makes their deftly played camaraderie more appealing. Caan also appears to be having a fairly contagious good time as thepractical-joking shyster who’s into Eastern disciplines.

Material first surfaced as a 13-minute B&W short of the same title, which was first shown at the USA Film Festival in Dallas three years ago and subsequently unspooled at Sundance. L.M. Kit Carson steered the project to producer Barbara Boyle, who then took it to Polly Platt and James L. Brooks. The modestly budgeted result is visually tidy, with Robert Yeoman’s clean lensing displaying a fine feel for the Texas locations and the understated retro look of David Wasco’s production design.

Bottle Rocket

Production

A Sony Pictures release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Gracie Films/Boyle-Taylor production. Produced by Polly Platt, Cynthia Hargrave. Executive producers, James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, Barbara Boyle, Michael Taylor. Co-producers, Ray Zimmerman, L.M. Kit Carson. Directed by Wes Anderson. Screenplay, Owen C. Wilson, Anderson.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Robert Yeoman; editor, David Moritz; music, Mark Mothersbaugh; production design, David Wasco; art direction, Jerry N. Fleming; set decoration, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco; costume design, Karen Patch; sound (Dolby), Stacy Brownrigg; associate producers, Michael Lang, Andrew Wilson; assistant director, Jim Goldthwait; casting, Liz Keigley. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (noncompeting), Jan. 29, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Dignan - Owen C. Wilson
Anthony Adams - Luke Wilson
Bob Mapplethorpe - Robert Musgrave
Future Man - Andrew Wilson
Inez - Lumi Cavazos
Mr. Henry - James Caan
Hector Mapplethorpe - Teddy Wilson
Applejack - Jim Ponds

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