Wes Anderson – Bottle Rocket

BRIAN: The time has come for us to embark on a study of a celebrated filmmaker. The filmmaker in question is a director whose current output is well-crafted, thoughtful, and, dare I say it, downright entertaining. That’s right, it’s time for us to talk about one Wesley Wales Anderson, better known to the general public as ‘Wes’.

A big reason I wanted to start with Anderson is that I love Grand Budapest Hotel so much, enough to name it my favorite movie of 2014. But Hotel is a work from a fully-formed artist, someone who’s clearly at the top of their game. I haven’t seen most of Anderson’s earlier movies and I’m hoping that, going through his filmography one by one, I’ll be able to understand and appreciate his directorial style even more.

Which brings us to Bottle Rocket.

It came out twenty-one years ago in 1996, so I suppose that means Anderson’s career can legally imbibe alcohol. Watching it from a modern perspective, the most surprising thing about Bottle Rocket is that it didn’t give the world one new celebrated artist. It gave us three.

I spent the first twenty minutes of the movie pretty much shouting, “Luke and Owen Wilson are so young!” over and over. Once I got over my initial excitement, I realized that Owen Wilson is giving a fantastic and thoroughly unique performance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character like Dignan on screen before or since. He’s prideful, cowardly, and a complete innocent, but the movie never condescends to him. I think he’s the primary reason Bottle Rocket works as well as it does.

But, before this derails into an Owen Wilson auteur study (which would include the likes of Drillbit Taylor and Zoolander 2), what are your opening thoughts on Bottle Rocket and the character of Dignan, Danielle?

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DANIELLE: So  before I start on my initial thoughts in this movie, I would like to also give some background. I’m super excited to embark on this Wes Anderson journey. He is one of my favorite directors and I will say that Grand Budapest Hotel is a favorite movie of mine as well. I remember I saw it alone in a D.C. theater during a time when I was pretty down and it was such a delight. I like to think of it as “hipster therapy.”

Also I will proudly say that Luke Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are two of my all time celebrity crushes (I know you were probs expecting Brad Pitt or a boyband member but it is what it is). The Luke crush dates back all the way to his Home Fries days so you can imagine how stoked I was to watch Bottle Rocket.

Which brings me to the actual movie (with Luke looking prime 90s heartthrob FYI). I was distracted by the fact that this movie was the creation of a pair of college roommates who became what they are today. Could you imagine writing a script, making a movie and then taking Hollywood by storm with any of your college roomies?

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to see some early traces with the dry one liners and close-up shots of handwritten notes. I’m excited to see how his work develops chronologically as we watch his other movies!

Also, this movie is funny, which surprised me. I feel like it’s not slapstick or even laugh out loud funny but it has this wit to it that I loved. Some favorite lines were:

“I can’t come home, I’m an adult.”

“What has she ever done with her life?!” – Dignan talking about Anthony’s middle school sister.

“Bob’s gone. He stole his car.”

And the whole thing with the hotel boy telling Dignan to tell Anthony “I love you” was just great.

I’m glad you started with Dignan. He was such an interesting character. He is so delusional and self-centered yet I didn’t hate him and didn’t love him. He was a hard character for me to figure out or understand his motivations. Why does he even want to be a master thief? It felt like he didn’t really have a solid answer himself. And though he was this delusional risk taker aiming for something he wasn’t really good at, I liked that there was also a delusional nature in Anthony as well. I mean, who falls head over heels with a hotel cleaning lady in a day?

I obviously liked Anthony but his crayon drawings and obsession with Inez put him on a similar level to Dignan in imperfection. Both of them felt like these two characters in arrested development with Anthony, at least, having a better grasp on reality.

So I’ll stop with my initial reactions. I have so many more!

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BRIAN: I’m glad you touched on the humor in the film. It’s a nice mix of wordplay and light slapstick. There are some broader jokes…

ANTHONY: What part of Mexico are you from?”

INEZ: Paraguay.

…but it’s mostly listen-closely-or-you’ll miss-them beats like you mentioned with Bob stealing his own car. It definitely shows you where Anderson’s priorities are with Bottle Rocket. He’s not interested in scoring a laugh at the expense of the characters. He wants the humor to build on what the audience already knows about the character dynamics. A lesser comedy would sell out Dignan for laughs, but Anderson doesn’t, thereby keeping the character’s humanity intact.

Take the scene where Future Man ridicules Dignan for looking like a “little banana” in his yellow jumpsuit. Anderson could have easily made Dignan’s humiliation the source of the humor, but it’s played fairly straight with Dignan reacting how most people would to a bully’s taunts (ineffectually staring at his own feet). It’s only afterwards when Anthony tries to cheer him up that the movie goes for humor.

DIGNAN: I’m not always as confident as I look.

ANTHONY: Did you see what he had on?

DIGNAN (mumbling): Yeah…it was pretty cool.

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That’s what’s most enjoyable about Bottle Rocket. Even though Dignan and Anthony are deeply flawed and, like you said, stuck in a state of arrested development, they’re not in the movie to be mocked. They’re in the movie to be celebrated.

Dignan, Anthony, and the third spoke on their aimless tricycle, Bob, are eccentrics. They have no idea where their lives are headed (even though Dignan has a ridiculous 75-year plan). But, in my life, I find that the most boring people are the ones with their lives already figured out. I try to seek out the Dignans of the world because, frankly, they’re more interesting to be around.

However, I want to go back to your thoughts on the movie’s overall structure. Do you think the plot works on its own or, like me, do you find the story to be a complete mess.

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DANIELLE: Yeah I’m gonna have to agree with you on the structure. I feel like we were placed into a story right in the middle of it, with parts of it missing. I had a hard time really getting how all of these people knew each other or why they did most of the things they did.

Not that I needed to know every detail of their lives to focus on the dynamics, but there were details missing that made everything random and the characters feel somewhat incomplete. Again I’m unclear of how being a thief even came into play.

I did find myself questioning what was the overall point that Anderson was trying to get across here. Was this just slackers trying to achieve delusional dreams and a few laughable scenes that Anderson/Wilson wrote and then just strung together? What are your thoughts on that?

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BRIAN: I think the main problems stem from the character motivations. Anthony, Dignan, and Bob all have muddled motivations because they don’t know what they want themselves, which leads to audience confusion. Even more than that, a lot of the early scenes are difficult to decipher.  

During the first scene at Bob’s house, for instance, there’s almost no attempt made to explain who Future Man is, why he’s called Future Man, or why everyone’s chilling at a Frank Lloyd Wright house. The most egregious plot exemption, though, is the lack of a proper conclusion to the Anthony/Inez storyline. I definitely wanted another scene of the two of them reconnecting after the “I Love You” exchange over the phone.

I watched Bottle Rocket a couple of times, and the second time I just decided to let the plot glide over my head. That’s the way to enjoy the movie. Once you stop worrying about plot and realize the characters are all fragile, aimless figures then it becomes a great character study. Even though the surface plot is distractingly thin, the two main characters, Anthony and Dignan, have satisfying arcs.

When Dignan declares, “They’ll never catch me…’cause I’m fucking innocent” in the “2000 Man” chase scene at the end of the movie, it’s a beautiful moment of clarity. It’s him finally getting to be what he’s been pretending to be for the entire film…a leader. He’s not going to leave a man behind because he’s the architect of the heist and only he can take responsibility for it.

Anthony letting Dignan rescue Applejack is important since the rest of the movie he’s been protecting Dignan’s emotional state by indulging in his crime spree delusions. By letting Dignan run into the arms of the police, Anthony’s giving up his watchdog role in Dignan’s life. That leaves him open to other experiences. That leaves him open to Inez.

And that’s the point of the movie. Dignan starts out as Don Quixote and ends up as a responsible adult willing to atone for his crimes. Anthony goes from being an overly indulgent Sancho to an emotionally balanced adult who’s open to having a healthy romantic relationship. As I’m typing this, I’m realizing the characters in the movie are pretty much our age, and I’m definitely not ready to be an emotionally balanced adult. BUT at least I’m not in prison!

This feels like a wrap-up so I’m going to go with it. Any final thoughts on Bottle Rocket, Danielle? Is there anything left you want to discuss?

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DANIELLE: I think I agree with you on all of this. I’ll add that there is that final scene in the jail yard where Dignan starts talking about an escape plan which makes it seem that he is just as delusional as ever. Then he smiles, acknowledging that he was joking, making us all realize that he isn’t that delusional after all.

You’re right. In the end by him getting caught, he gets to be the thief he wanted. It was never about being a good one or succeeding. I feel like it was more about that badass thief lifestyle. What proves you are more of a badass criminal than jail time?

In the end, both guys get what they had been searching for after all – Dignan got to make his wild fantasy a reality and gets to be the one to rescue Anthony for once (which we see him attempt to do in the mental institution), Anthony got to let go of the burden of watching out for Dignan and follow his heart, and Bob got someone to stick up for him to his awful brothers (even at the expense of having their house robbed).

So just to summarize my movie thoughts. I think this was a solid movie when you don’t worry too much about structure and plot, as you said, and just watch it to be entertained. I think the choice of actors were pretty solid for these characters which is impressive given that these were just Anderson’s buddies.

I may have enjoyed this out of love for Wes Anderson and the Wilson brothers but had it not been for them, it may not have been on my radar. Overall, solid movie and I’d recommend it to others.

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BRIAN: I didn’t even make the mental institution/heist connection, but, yeah, that’s exactly what the movie’s getting at. Dignan “saving” Anthony at the mental institution versus Dignan actually saving him at Hinckley Cold Storage.

Also, it’s worth noting that this movie probably wouldn’t have been made if not for mega-producer James L. Brooks. You’ll know Brooks from bringing little TV shows into the world like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons and also from directing tiny movies like Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News. Brooks basically saw the original Bottle Rocket short Anderson and the Wilson brothers made at Sundance and decided to shepherd the feature length version through his production company Gracie Films.

Brooks served as a mentor to Anderson during the making of Bottle Rocket and he’s only done that for two other filmmakers: Cameron Crowe for his directorial debut Say Anything and Kelly Fremon Craig for her directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen.

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Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe are now incredibly well-regarded filmmakers (give or take a little whitewashing in Aloha), but if you want to see the 2016 version of Bottle Rocket, it’s definitely The Edge of Seventeen. The movie’s also a bit of a structural mess with fascinating characters. Hailee Steinfeld definitely gives off Owen Wilson-level idiosyncratic charisma in the movie. Her character, Nadine, is disregarded by her family and the general public but manages to forge her own future by being an unrepentant oddball.

So that’s my James L. Brooks-as-mentor double feature recommendation. Bottle Rocket and The Edge of Seventeen. Do it!

Next up, drain a glass of Scotch, light up a cigarette, and jump into the nearest swimming pool, because we’ll be discussing Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

And as always…the Sarris Wheel spins on!

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Danielle and Brian have been frenemies since their college years. Although Danielle is burning the midnight oil in Chicago and Brian is experiencing delusions of grandeur in Los Angeles, The Sarris Wheel has reunited them at last.

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Kick back with Danielle at her blog, Wild Night In.

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