July 25, 2014 - 3:30pm
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket were written by Alex Lovendahl, UW Madison student. Bottle Rocket will screen at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 25 in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

Though Wes Anderson is best known for the diorama-and -dollhouse-like sets of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and the almost literal dioramas and dollhouses of the stop-motion film Fantastic Mr. Fox, viewers will see the intricacy of production design and specificity of detail pared down in Anderson’s first feature film, Bottle Rocket. The story of bumbling would-be bandits who happen to be would-be brothers grants us a naïve and vulnerable look at the filmmaker’s relationship to his home territory and fellow dreamers.

Bottle Rocket marks the feature debut of screenwriter/actor Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the script with Anderson. The two lived in a small home and shared two beds with the other two Wilson brothers, Luke and Andrew (also debuting as protagonist Anthony and John “Future Man” Mapplethorpe, respectively).  Anderson and Wilson would write three films together, culminating with The Royal Tenenbaums. They stopped writing together as Wilson became in higher demand as an actor, and Anderson’s films took a somber turn, beginning with his meditation on irrelevancy with The Life Aquatic (co-written by Noah Baumbach.)

Not until The Life Aquatic would an Anderson film be as sun-drenched as Bottle Rocket. Few films look as warm in their depictions of summer without saturating their oranges and blues; Bottle Rocket instead highlights its yellows, from Dignan’s jumpsuits to the bedsheets of the motel. Few turn of the century filmmakers captured yellows and warmth with the same enthusiasm as Anderson and his go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman.

Though Bottle Rocket’s visual style is less meticulously staged than its successors, the production design is outstanding. The trademark Anderson handwritten insert – Dignan’s seventy-five year plan – utilizes multiple colors of markers not to reflect Dignan’s inability to plan the heist quickly, but rather his highly capable organization (note that only headers and prefaces appear in blue, whereas actual “plans” appear in red). However, don’t mistake that organization for capability; Dignan’s plans remain vague, often suggesting simple ideas like “odds” as keys to living successfully. Consider that the scenes at the Mapplethorpes’ house were filmed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s John Gillen Residence, a home designed by an architect out of time for a Texan geophysicist.

Though laughs permeate all of Anderson’s films, Bottle Rocket is consistently funny. The majority of the staff deliver these lines casually and conversationally, making the absurd seem normal, nondescript. None relish the opportunity more than James Caan, who chews his way through a rejection of Anthony and a total shutdown of Future Man in his first ten minutes on screen as Mr. Henry. Given a short amount of time in the film, Caan chooses to make the most of what he’s given.

I claim the true star, of surprise to no one who has seen the film, is Owen Wilson’s Dignan, the excitable obsessive and one of Anderson’s iconic characters. Hungry for adventure, he wants to live on the edges of normal life, an outlaw with a heart of gold. He rejects the simple, the casual, the conversational, always “calling his gang” with a birdcall or launching into another layer of his scheme, alienating himself to the point of ignoring his friends’ happiness. But, unlike the self-destructive Max Fischer of Rushmore, Dignan refuses to advance without his companions. Though he storms off angrily, one request from Bob to be on the team is enough to make Dignan declare his one ultimatum; the slightest hint of interest from Anthony is enough to make Wilson flash a beautiful smile. Without the combination of Wilson’s belief in the character’s beauty and his failings, both in the writing and the acting, Bottle Rocket could not exist in its current form.

The film performs a balancing act. It is about the naïveté, adventurous spirit, and social ignorance of Dignan and his love for friends and brothers. Simultaneously it carries the “Born to Run” spirit of living in a town too small for one’s dreams. Each viewing, I have come away feeling differently about its core, though Dignan runs away with my affection each and every time.

The final heist is as ridiculous as an amateur heist could be. It is truly amazing that Bottle Rocket and Fargo were both released in the first months of 1996 and that one film could not have directly inspired the other. How else could the absurd misconduct of Dignan and Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter reflect the same ridiculous misunderstanding of the importance of masks and the value of awareness? But where Fargo damns its kidnappers, facing the darkest elements of their psyche, Bottle Rocket absolves them. Dignan/Wilson’s last lines in the film foreshadow the fall from innocence Anderson and Wilson would explore in their next, more well-regarded film, Rushmore.