Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, James Caan, Robert Musgrave, Lumi Cavazos, Ned Dowd, Shea Fowler, Haley Miller, Andrew Wilson, Brian Tenenbaum, Stephen Dignan, Anna Cifuentes, Kumar Pallana
Written by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Directed by: Wes Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 92
Date: 02/21/1996
IMDB

Bottle Rocket (1996)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sparklers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Wes Anderson's feature debut Bottle Rocket was released just two years after Pulp Fiction, the market had been saturated with cool, quirky, independent crime films, most of them trying to be the next Quentin Tarantino. Bottle Rocket did not appear any different, especially given that, like Pulp Fiction, it had a 1970s-era star (James Caan) cast in a supporting role to give it some toughness and crime credibility.

I did not even see Bottle Rocket until after I saw Anderson's wonderful second film, Rushmore. And now it seems so far away from Pulp Fiction that it's a wonder the connection was ever made in the first place.

Of course, Anderson is not the only career that was launched here. We also get the Wilson brothers, not only Owen -- who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson -- and Luke, but also older brother Andrew, who has turned into more of a character actor in very small roles. Both Owen and Luke bring their appealingly laid back drawl to their lead characters, applying it straightfaced to the quirky dialogue, coming up with laughs in the strangest of places. Just the way that Owen's character Dignan says his own name cracks me up.

The drama focuses on Luke's character, Anthony Adams. (It always struck me as odd that these obvious real-life brothers do not play bothers in the film.) Anthony has had something of a breakdown and has been staying in a psychiatric hospital. Dignan stages a daring "rescue," even though Anthony is free to leave at any time. Dignan has cooked up a plan for the friends to become world-class burglars, along with their driver Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave). After a few trial runs, Dignan hopes that they can join the gang of the seasoned thief Mr. Henry (Caan).

Their first robbery is a bookstore, which, even though it's comically pathetic, is a minor success. The gang goes on the run and chooses a lonely roadside motel in which to lay low for a while. While swimming, Anthony spies the lovely cleaning lady Inez (Lumi Cavazos, from Like Water for Chocolate) and falls madly in love with her. After some tension and fighting, and the news that Bob's brother (Andrew Wilson) has been arrested for possession of marijuana (which is actually Bob's), the gang splits up and heads back. Time passes, and they finally get their chance at a big time heist, masterminded by Mr. Henry.

The big climactic heist is not played for thrills or suspense, and Anderson's camera seems as nervous and as out of place as Anthony and Dignan might be. He tries to compose his usual wide shots, but it's as if his efforts are faltering in the chaos; it's almost a brilliant parody of a robbery scene. Overall, Anderson's compositions are not as rigorous here as they are in future movies, though he still finds interesting ways to fill a frame. As always, his characters are amazingly sympathetic despite their quirky ways.

Anderson fans will be able to see all kinds of familiar faces, such as Kumar Pallana, who went on to appear in many more of Anderson's features (and passed away in October of 2013). There's also Kumar's son, Dipak Pallana, who plays the teacher in the opening scenes of Rushmore. And legend has it that Leslie Mann appears uncredited as a sorority girl. Based on Anderson's own previous short film, Bottle Rocket cost something around $7 million (in 1996, Hollywood was spending about $75-80 million on summer blockbusters) but grossed only about $500,000.

All in all, it's a delightful little debut film, well worth revisiting from time to time.

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