Arriving on blu-ray in the UK for the first time, Wes Anderson’s debut feature is a flawed but fascinating indie caper. Setting the template for his cinematic universe of privileged, preppy oddballs – which he would continue with Rushmore, and perfect with The Royal Tenenbaums – Bottle Rocket is a heist movie with a difference.
Co-written with Owen Wilson, the film tells what would become a familiar story in the Anderson Collection. A story of bored and depressed young men who have everything and nothing. Born into wealth, and afforded every opportunity, yet life has somehow passed them by. Anthony (Luke Wilson) checks himself out of a psychiatric hospital where he has been a voluntary patient. With his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) they have a plan to go on a decade spanning crime spree. They begin by robbing Anthony’s house, and then recruit their wealthy friend Bob (Robert Musgrave) to be their getaway driver for future heists, as he is the only person they know who owns a car.
This should give you a clear idea of the irreverent tone of Bottle Rocket. With the trademark deadpan absurdist humour, sly in-jokes, 60s needle drops, and cavalcade of eccentric characters that would come to define his career, this truly is the blueprint of Anderson the auteur. Although a commercial disaster when originally released, it was a big enough hit with critics to give this precociously talented bunch the chance to make another film. That film would be the fabulous, career-defining Rushmore.
This film unfortunately hasn’t aged quite as well. It meanders and moseys in that naval-gazing 90s American indie movie way, and all seems a bit fey, contrived, and mannered. Yes I know we are talking about a Wes Anderson film, and manufactured whimsy is his stock-in-trade. Bottle Rocket however, lacks the meticulous artistry of his later work, where his affectations are more in-keeping.
Not without it’s charms however, the film is frequently hilarious, though your funny bone will need to be tuned to Anderson’s idiosyncratic tone. Owen Wilson, making his acting and screenwriting debut is on excellent form as Dignan, looking like a US Marine on undercover manoeuvres at a country club. His earnest line delivery and “ka-kaw” distress calls never fail to make me laugh. James Caan turns up in the latter half of the film as a criminal guru/landscape gardener, who becomes a sort of father figure for the hapless trio. It’s a strangely charming cameo from Caan, in the role that in every other Wes Anderson film would have gone to Bill Murray.
This Criterion release comes packed with supplementary features, including a commentary with Anderson and Owen Wilson, and a making of documentary featuring all the main cast and crew. The disc also contains the original black and white 16mm short film that was the basis for Bottle Rocket. There are also deleted scenes, behind the scenes photographs, and a short film by Barry Braverman.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus