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
THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, 2009
As I began re-watching Fantastic Mr. Fox for the second time, I tried to convince my wife to watch it with me. “I’m allergic to Wes Anderson,” she said. I tried to explain that this was different from the typical Anderson film because it is animated and based on a Roald Dahl work. As it reached the five-minute mark and she heard Bill Murray’s voice, she said “yes it is! It is just a Wes Anderson movie with animation!” and she was gone. I still think she might enjoy this, as it seems to be one that other Anderson haters embrace. That includes me, to a certain extent.
Among some circles, this is blasphemy, but I am not a huge Wes Anderson fan. I respect him immensely as a filmmaker and acknowledge his creative vision, but his filmmaking mannerisms (or Andersonisms) are a little too organized, calculated, and a departure from reality. I like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, and I liked The Grand Budapest Hotel. I loved The Royal Tenenbaums when it first came out, but it hasn’t aged well because he has gone back to the well too often.
That said, I cussing adore The Fantastic Mr. Fox! It is a cussing brilliant film, and easily my favorite Anderson.
Oddly enough, even though these are animals, they feel more real than any Tenenbaums, Zissou’s or other Andersonish characters. There’s a little of Mr. Fox in all of us, adventurous, impulsive, occasionally brilliant, and yes, egotistical. His faults can be frustrating and endearing, and that materializes with his marriage to Mrs. Fox, so eloquently voiced by Meryl Streep. Even his child and nephew and their little rivalry and is easily relatable. Most people can put themselves in either the Ash or Kristofferson category, and you can empathize with both. That they are so far apart makes their chemistry and eventual friendship that much more moving. They find that they both have different strengths and weaknesses, which is sort of the point of the entire film. On top of that, I love the wolf scene and how it embodies facing and embracing what we are most afraid of, which often is just as afraid and nervous about us.
That’s not to say that there are not a lot of Andersonisms added to the project. The game of Wackbat and the Owen Wilson quickly narrated instructions while showing an overhead view of the field with complicated, graphical examples that populate and crowd the screen. And yes, he relies on a lot of his stable of actors, such as Murray, Schwartzman, Murray, Wilson, and his brother Eric. If you only listened to the film, it probably wouldn’t sound too different than other Anderson movies. Even though I’m not a fanboy, that’s not a bad thing. Anderson has a lot of talent and a distinctive style, which I found to be a better fit with animation than live action.
Movie Rating: 8.5/10
Special Features: This disc is absolutely loaded with features. There’s an animatic version of the film, which is basically the same voices with storyboards. I’m sure there’s an audience of that, and I thought it was interesting for 10 minutes, but couldn’t re-watch the entire movie this way.
The making-of scenes were vast and fantastic. They range from showing the actors out on a farm doing their voice acting, to seeing the laborious stop motion animation process, to seeing the musical composition. They number more than a dozen little vignettes that are all enjoyable.
One of the coolest features is Dahl reading the original story, which I enjoyed for a short duration. There have been audio tracks like this on other discs. Red River for instance had the full radio play. All are interesting, but you have to keep the DVD in the player on that screen to listen to the audio. It is too bad Criterion doesn’t let you download the file to listen later on a mobile device.
There’s also a terrific audio commentary by Wes Anderson. He talks a lot about the technique and process, but also talks about where he got his vision. I liked when he pointed out where he lifted objects from, whether they were from Dahl’s house or borrowed from other films, such as Truffault’s The Story of Adele H, which Anderson wonders out loud if he can be sued for mentioning. Probably not since it made the cut.
If that’s not enough, there’s also an hour-long documentary about Roald Dahl. I watched the beginning and my interest was peaked, but I will save it for a day.
Because of the extensive special features and the gorgeous digipak case, if you have any appreciation for this film, I’d recommend the Criterion. I consider it among the best that have been released this year.
Criterion Rating: 10/10