Format: DVD (I own this DVD and totally forgot)
Director: Wes Anderson
Long before Wes Anderson became someone 32 year olds had strong opinions about on twitter, he released a small-budget picture through Columbia Pictures, which is likely a story unto itself. I note big names like Polly Platt and James L. Brooks showed up in producer credits - and.. y'all, this is Anderson's first feature credit and his second credit at all on IMDB. It's... weird.
But the good news is that this small film is still remarkably watchable, and free of many of the gimmicks and Anderson-isms that would make those 32 year olds have strong opinions on twitter, while clearly and obviously being part of the Anderson oeuvre.
What's curious is that the set-up is one that often will be a set-up that makes me just turn off a movie, but it's never bugged me with this film since I saw it circa 1997 or so the first time. I can tell I've also mellowed with age, because I kind of didn't even notice it til partway through the movie this time that this WAS the set-up. And that set-up: genial and well-meaning friend sticks with friend full of hair-brained schemes that keep digging them both in deeper when it's clear the schemer is an idiot. I mean, this isn't a formula limited to comedies, it pops up in noir and drama and whatnot, and sometimes I find it... uninteresting.
But Bottle Rocket (1996) never grates on me that way (and a few other films as well). The Wilson brothers have enough of a vibe and charm and the characters are so earnest, and their plans so ill-advised, it's all terribly watchable.
Owen Wilson co-stars and co-wrote the screenplay with director Wes Anderson, playing a guy who sees himself as one step away from a life of action and adventure in a heist crew - he just needs to pull a job on his own to prove his bonafides. To that end, he recruits his pal (brother Luke Wilson) - fresh out of a mental hospital - to come help with the first heist. And, they recruit their old pal (Robert Musgrave), a DFW rich-kid living in his parents sprawling mid-century home.
While there is a plot to Bottle Rocket, I'll argue the well designed characters are the drawing point and they drive the plot, anyway. Anderson and Wilson set a clash of lovable loser personalities, whose expectations and hopes and, unfortunately, reality - something none of our heisters seem to have a firm grip on - are in opposition. In fact, unchecked optimism, a hallmark of many-an-Anderson character, is part of what makes the trio so watchable as they go about their business. You're rooting for these guys, knowing they're their own worst enemies. A would-be mastermind, a best-friend and a guy who just wants to be a part of something.
The film also features a small (and surely where a lot of the bankroll went) role for James Caan as Mr. Henry (the actual mastermind), and the lovely Lumi Cavazos as a motel maid who captures Luke Wilson's attention. There's also Andrew Wilson (the third Wilson brother), and Anderson troupe player Kumar Pallana.
We're pretty far off from Anderson's eventual obsession with design, stage-like sets, symmetrical camera alignment, punchy colors, etc... which would come to be associated with his work by Royal Tenenbaums. But his trademark dry and pointed dialog is in place, as are his Quixotic characters. And in a more naturalistic presentation, it's perhaps not as jarring to those film viewers who now find Anderson a bit too much.
As a Texan, parts of the film have a familiar feel as the characters inhabit empty, wide-open spaces you get as you enter the Great Plains just at Hillsboro, where parts of the film were made (the motel sequences), and even the city portions in DFW bely the openness of those urban-ish landscapes and sprawling suburbs. The wide-open spaces play to Anderson's visual strengths, framing the characters in a sort of limbo, unfixed in the world they don't understand and don't know where they're going (it's of course notable that Inez, who has a role and place to be, is probably the smartest and most fixed in space character in the film).
Anyhoo... if you want an idea of how good Anderson was from jump, the final heist scene in the film is amazing, terrifically captured flailing chaos - and that could have been really hard to convey, but he nails it in his first film. And it's @#$%ing funny.