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Saturday, January 12, 2013

First of Fourteen: Bottle Rocket

This series is dedicated to the viewing of first films by fourteen different directors of my choosing. The purpose being a retrospective look back at each film and where it stands in their overall canon and how it may have shaped each director's style in subsequent years. Each director chosen is currently active, and has helmed at least five films.

The tale of three amateur gangsters with ambitions of rising in the crime business, Bottle Rocket was the debut feature of beloved indie auteur Wes Anderson. I have a love-kinda like it relationship with Anderson's works. I can easily say that Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are two of my favorite films in his canon, and I have a distant respect for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, not that the latter is considered sub-par by any means, but I think it pales in comparison to the bigger triumphs of his work. Moonrise Kingdom I had to watch twice to be able to say I enjoyed it, as its first view left me completely cold. I still have found little to appreciate in The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson has a unique sensibility, an almost hyper-realistic world where everything is hermetically sealed and quirky. This is not meant to be a criticism, as these visual elements are what I've come to enjoy about his films. I'm sad to admit this viewing is the first time I ever saw Bottle Rocket, one of Hannah's favorite films, that I just never got around to. In short, I generally enjoyed it, moreso when the film played to its own strengths.

Visually, Bottle Rocket strays from the "Wes Anderson look", which isn't a surprise for a first-time filmmaker, but it was jarring to go from the orange-magenta 60's look of Moonrise Kingdom and see the almost gritty (though its a terrible use of the word) form of cinematography utilized here. In part one can see the building blocks of what would eventually become his go-to style. Bottle Rocket, for its part, takes place in our world much like Rushmore, but rather than having a character fight against that world as in the latter film, the world seems to be hurtling toward Anthony (Luke Wilson) who is a generally passive protagonist until fate offers him a reason to act, vis a vis romantic entanglements. The one point where the visual aspects of Anderson's later work creep in is when Dignan (Owen Wilson) shares his 75-year plan, where the camera focuses on his notebook with the child-like writing and scribbles. It was at that point that I knew I had happened upon the initial seed of cinematography that Anderson shifted his career towards. It's funny to think that this film was instantly compared to Reservoir Dogs upon its release, the film's poster declares "This is Reservoir Geek!" from some critic, and on the surface there are some storyline comparisons though the analogy doesn't really hold. Anderson certainly shed those Gen X/Tarantino comparisons quickly thereafter.  

These two main characters in Bottle Rocket are interesting, if not fully fleshed out creations. With Dignan, most of what we hear coming out of his mouth is the next plan, and he seems almost representative of that person we all know who is just days away from coming up with his/her next scheme. He does at least get moments of development though, I particularly point out the scene where he hands Ines (Lumi Cavazos) an envelope from Anthony without ever questioning what's inside of it. There's an awkward silence in that scene, and the expressions on Dignan's face quietly give that character some depth, particularly when faced with the woman who has provided such a distraction for his partner. The final prison scene is also telling, as after joking with Anthony and Robert (Robert Musgrave) after his arrest in the way that's comes to be a fairly common trait for the character, he turns and looks at them both and we as an audience learn that there's a bit more bubbling underneath the surface. In general, its probably my favorite Owen Wilson performance (Midnight in Paris possibly excepted), but as the screenwriting partner of Anderson on the project, it would be shocking if his personalization didn't lead to good results. I only wish he had given himself more moments like the ones above, or rather more moments that work as well. Anthony does not fare better. Wilson plays him pitched somewhere around the kind of character always plays in Anderson films, doe-eyed cynicism. Anthony is, in a sense, a preview of Richie from The Royal Tenenbaums. Both characters have become disillusioned with the world to the point of shutting themselves out from it, but unlike Richie where this character motivation has a clearer origin point, we never quite get there with Anthony. He's self-checked into a mental institution because he's exhausted, but for what reason? Throughout the film, Anthony is simply reactionary, mainly to Dignan's plans. This may function as Anderson and Wilson's look at pushy-friendships where one friend is the main driver, but we at least need to understand more of the emotional gearing of both halves. 

When watching Bottle Rocket, there are three different elements at play: there's the pseudo screwball caper comedy, the romantic comedy, and the brotherly relationship drama. The first element is the part that appealed to me best, the scenes where Dignan and Anthony plan their heists and enact them both is where the film is the most alive. When the team robs the local book store, the laconic reaction of the low-key employees are hilarious, and I especially like when they discuss their need to wear tape on their nose during the heist like its clearly common sense. The climactic scene where they stage their biggest heist actually has a few tense (but fleeting) moments, but also elicits the most humor out the material, particularly in the plight of poor Kumar (Kumar Pallana) who just simply doesn't know what's going on. His lack of recognition of Applejack had me in stitches. The other tones that Bottle Rocket tries to tackle don't come off quite as successfully. In the second act, the film's pace slows significantly, but it does so out of necessity as this is the one moment where Anthony begins to at least show initiative through his charmingly aggressive and eccentric pursuit of Ines at the motel that the gang holes up in. While the initial scenes where Anthony follows her into hotel rooms while she changes linens, whether guests are there or not, are quite well done and humorous; as it continues on, drag begins to set in somewhat, leading to overall mixed results with this plot point. The film is at its most dire when it tries to create a rift between Dignan and Anthony over giving away earnings from the bookstore robbery. I'm not sure if there's a cliche I hate more than "friends stranded on the side of the road get into an argument, and one walks back", but Bottle Rocket goes there, and their eventual reconciliation isn't really any more interesting. To be fair, this particular affectation is the shortest of the three, but it would have been nice to just see it hit the cutting room floor as the characters just aren't developed enough to make us care about this particular choice of scenario.

In so far as minor characters go, the antagonism and eventual resolution of Robert and his bullying older sibling Future Man (Andrew Wilson, the eldest of the three brothers) is oddly the relationship that I found the most satisfying beyond the core three characters. We as the audience are given just enough to work with as to why they have such an antagonistic relationship, and when its resolved it done so through "telling and not showing", which is normally a negative trait, but Musgrave delivers the story of how it occurred so innocently and convincingly that I was definitely sold. The character of Mr. Henry (James Caan), the real gangster of the film, is a little more problematic. Yes, he is the plot mechanism that gets the pair involved in the final heist and serves as the motivator for Future Man's come-uppance. But as scripted and played by Caan, it feels like he's been shipped in from another film entirely. Every scene he features in feels out of sync with the tone established by the rest of the script. For the most part, Mr. Henry comes across as a stock-heavy with unearned eccentric affectations. I can't help but feel that future Wes Anderson would have created a more interesting, less pulled out of b-movies, crime-boss. One can only assume that first feature Anderson was limited to producer needs and distribution necessities. 

For all of my complaints, Bottle Rocket is an enjoyable film, with two very strong end-pieces framing some noticeable bloat, but it feels more like a test-run of what Anderson's perfects in Rushmore. This may be an unfair thing to judge the film by, but I argue that if this was the only film Anderson ever made and his craft had never had the opportunity to improve into the films that I hold in higher regard, I'd likely have a lesser opinion of Bottle Rocket. The fact that its a sneak preview of the work that is to come and shows a developing talent finding his feet, makes it a much more interesting piece to view in hindsight. I'm looking forward to digging into again someday soon, and perhaps some of its less noticeable charms will catch hold of me, as all his films tend to do.

It's a flawed film, but not enough where its weaknesses eclipse its very memorable highlights. Were I to grade it, I'd give it a solid B.

Next up for First of Fourteen: Christopher Nolan's debut feature Following, and then Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave.     
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