It would be unfair to only talk about Bottle Rocket as Wes Anderson’s first film, and how it planted the template from which his future style would grow. It technically was his first film and certain stylistic and performance elements would reoccur, but it feels to be more substantial than a first feature. Wes Anderson and the Wilson brothers were learning, certainly, but the real first feature was the short film a few years earlier. That was their low-budget, independent way of figuring things out, and that’s what gave them the attention and confidence to be trusted with a larger production. Bottle Rocket cost nearly $8 million dollars and had some influential and experienced people involved, notably producers James L. Brooks, Polly Platt, and actor James Caan.
It is fair to compare this alongside Anderson’s other works, and in my opinion, it rates rather highly. Anderson says in the ‘making of’ documentary that people usually have one of two responses to the movie – they either love or hate it. There isn’t much in between. I’m in the love it camp, and have been since I first saw it many years ago. I’ve already talked about my respectful ambivalence toward’s Wes Anderson in my Fantastic Mr. Fox write-up (all of the rest which will eventually be revisited), but it is worth repeating that the style of all of his films can be divisive. Sure, he’s a critical darling, and deservedly so, but some people find his quirky indie style to be unappealing. That has been me to a certain degree, but not with Bottle Rocket.
I think it is among his best films, somewhere around Fantastic Mr Fox, Rushmore and Grand Budapest Hotel.. On some days I might call it my favorite Wes Anderson.
Why do I like it so much? First off, Anderson is a phenomenal filmmaker, and this is apparent from throughout the feature debut, and to a certain degree with the short film. Of all his films, I think Dignan is the best-drawn character, and I will delve into him further in a moment. Even though the film is eccentric, compared to many of Anderson’s other works, it is more realistic. Sometimes in his later films he will take the quirkiness too far, such as with The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, and they appear to be more of a fantasy world than reality. Bottle Rocket and also Rushmore are grounded in a lower class, youthful and naive reality, with two (three if you count Bob) lost souls trying to scrap together a place in this world.
Another strength of Bottle Rocket is the romantic element, which I think Anderson has only come close to replicating with Rushmore. The fact that Anthony falls for a hotel housekeeper speaks to his desperation and to his benevolence. Most housekeepers are invisible, even to the lower classes. It speaks for Anthony’s character that not only he recognizes her, but he pursues her in the kindest, gentlest way possible, yet is genuinely infatuated.
One of my favorite scenes in all of Anderson’s movies is the pool scene where the romance is effectuated. The scene is beautifully lit and the pool is a gorgeous shade of blue. The camera angles are not linear, but not disruptive either. The way the scene is shot lends to the awkwardness and uncertainty of the characters, and the satisfaction for both of them once they finally act on their feelings. The scene ends appropriately with Dignan interrupting them.
Dignan is the type of character that is easy to love and feel sorry for at the same time. He is ignorant, naïve, and not very self aware, but he is also charismatic and confident. He has qualities that everyone has to a certain degree, yet they are accentuated. He is like a more eccentric and less intelligent Max from Rushmore. He will say what he means and sometimes trample on others, but he will instantly back down when it comes to a confrontation. His most endearing characteristic is his optimism and glass half-full outlook on life. I will not spoil the ending, but the fact that he utters the line “We did it” triumphantly to Anthony and Bob, just sums up everything about him. He gives another great line while in the midst of a heist – “They’ll never catch me because I’m fucking innocent.” He gets the best lines in the movie, as he should, because he’s …. well, he’s just Dignan.
Film Rating: 9/10
Commentary with Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson – They can barely remember the movie because they made it so long ago, but they still share a number of good stories. They weren’t sure whether they would cast the Wilson brothers because they had little acting experience and wouldn’t give the project much panache. The producers were the ones who convinced them. Jim Brooks thought Luke had a Montgomery Clift feel.
It was interesting that they cut roughly 20-minutes of an action sequence. This was Bob’s pot plant being discovered by police and them running away, much of which is in the deleted scenes. The odd part is that the remainder of the movie has very little action save for the very end, yet they cut the scene that had a lot of action because it simply didn’t fit.
They talk about the disastrous test screenings, and how they thought their film was funny, but discovered later that “there was not a big laugh in the movie.” They remembered one incredibly positive comment card out of 500 from that first screening where most people walked out. Anderson coincidentally met the person who wrote the card later and he recognized her because he cherished that card and kept it.
The Making of Bottle Rocket – This is mostly a series of interviews from the participants, since not much footage exists from the actual shooting. Anderson and the Wilsons talk about how young they were and how little they knew, but others say they were more professional and confident on the set. Andrew Wilson, for instance, says that they play possum because they knew exactly what they were doing. Interestingly enough, they were making $700 a week and $100 per diem during the production. They were kids and had never earned this type of money before, so a lot of people accused them of milking the production time to keep getting paid. The jury is still out whether that was the case, but they at least established the slow pace at which they would develop films. Anderson has never been in a major hurry, and that has helped his films retain a sense of quality.
Bottle Rocket, 1994 – This is the short 13-minute film that was recognized at Sundance. There are many similarities to the movie, such as the stealing of the earrings, playing pinball, the book store heist, and many more. For a student film, they do a good job and I can understand why people saw enough promise to give them a feature. It also looks inexpensive. For instance, they don’t show the bookstore robbery. They just show the actors talking about it later.
Deleted scenes – You can see the amateurism of the filmmaking from the deleted scenes far more than anything else, and they were smart to delete them. They would have slowed the movie down with irrelevancy. The pot chase was a fun scene, but most others were just distractions.
Photos and Storyboards – The photos were from Laura Wilson and encompassed the feature and the short. These stills are more for the die hard fans.
Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1: Bottle Rocket – For a critical commentary, this one was disorganized and inarticulate. He says some things about the characters, but mostly looks at random scenes and comments on them. Most of his comments are not very insightful, such “I love that,” for one or “I don’t like that” for another.
Murita Cycles, 1978 – This is Barry Braverman’s documentary about his father Murray. Braverman was a collaborator and friend of the filmmakers and this early work inspired them. You can tell that they modeled some of their characters from Murray. He is quirky and soft-spoken, and reminds me of some of the Bill Murray characters in later films. He is sort of a hoarder entrepreneur, yet is unafraid of getting himself dirty. Like a lot of Anderson characters, he is endearing and refreshing despite his flaws.
Criterion Rating: 9/10