February 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Bottle Rocket, and consequently a quarter of a century since the emergence of one of cinema’s greatest modern auteurs, Wes Anderson. A director known for his outlandish colour schemes and careful symmetry, Anderson has crafted his style over the years in clever comedies, the best known of which are perhaps Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Returning to Bottle Rocket after 25 years reveals much about the birth of a successful auteur, even if the movie does not quite stand up to Anderson’s later work.
The film was not only Anderson’s first as a director, it also spawned an acting dynasty of sorts, with brothers Owen, Luke and Andrew Wilson all making their American feature film debuts. Indeed, Bottle Rocket is as much Owen Wilson’s baby as it is Anderson’s, the two collaborating on screenwriting efforts after having met at the University of Texas. The film was first made by the two as a short in 1993 and then, with the backing of Columbia Pictures, converted into the feature length version that fast-tracked its star and director to prominence. Its plot follows Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson), two young, confused men who can’t decide which direction their lives should be heading. Desperate for purpose and searching for adventure, the two friends become petty thieves, robbing their own friends and families in rigorously planned but predictably incompetent stings, and fleeing town with their driver Bob (Robert Musgrave), the only friend they know who has a car, because they erroneously think they can feel the heat of the cops on their tails. Of course, further incompetence and miscommunications occur throughout the film, landing our protagonists in increasingly ridiculous scenarios that they are mentally incapable of extracting themselves from.
It is a simple enough narrative device, and one we have all seen a hundred times before, but it is sold here by the strength of the performances. Luke Wilson is solid as the slightly more sensible of the two friends, but it is his brother Owen who truly shines. It is so easy to see why he has become such a star in the 21st century – his charming if slightly rugged good looks that combine well with his Texas drawl; his excellent comic chops that make him believable as an incompetent idiot with an inflated ego, without ever making him unsympathetic; and, on the flip side, his ability to seamlessly switch into proper acting, lending gravitas to the film in the most vital moments. It could be argued that it is Wilson, rather than Anderson, who is the true breakout star of Bottle Rocket, and it is a true delight to watch his acting magic being set free for the first time upon a cinema screen.
If Owen Wilson seemed fully formed as a talent even in 1996, Wes Anderson is more obviously a filmmaker finding his feet. His signature style does not quite blossom in Bottle Rocket, and instead he seems to borrow from other contemporary auteurs. His characters feel like the slackers of a Linklater movie, the meandering, fast-paced conversations they have about nothing in particular being more akin to the work of the Coen Brothers or Jim Jarmusch rather than what we have come to expect from Anderson’s later work. There is clearly a creative force at work behind the camera of Bottle Rocket, and yet the director doesn’t seem to have the confidence to exert his own stamp on cinema yet, instead leaning on his favourite directors and replicating aspects of their work with admirable skill.
That is not to say there are not flashes of the familiar Anderson elegance here, though, and from time to time, his personality seeps through. While there is perhaps not much evidence for his love of symmetry and delicately constructed compositions, there are moments when he chooses to have bright colours permeate otherwise conventional shots. The most striking example of this is in the final heist scene of the movie, where our lovable criminals wear completely conspicuous yellow overalls as their disguises. More interesting still is a short scene early on in the film where Anthony visits his kid sister. Though the actress playing her, Shea Fowler, was only 11 at the time, Anderson has her engage in conversation with Anthony as though she were an adult, her speech and mannerisms demonstrating a wisdom and attitude far beyond her years, a fascinating trope that Anderson has returned to throughout his career.
Though fun and quirky and still fresh after all these years, Bottle Rocket lacks just a little of the quality of the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre. The plot of the film is threadbare, and what there is feels uneven at times – more like a number of disparate scenes strung together rather than a coherent movie. But you can see the experimentation on show, and some of these scenes really do zing. It marks itself out as an essential stepping stone in the career of a budding auteur and, though it might not thrill you in the way it intends to, it is well worth checking out to witness the birth of two superstars – Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson – right before your eyes.
Written by Ben Spicer
STAR RATING –★★★
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Ben Spicer is an aspiring film critic from the UK. His film blog, Final Shot, takes a look at movies from a new perspective, casting its eye over a range of films, both classic and modern, and providing fresh, honest perspectives. If you want to re-experience great movies and explore new avenues of the global, historical world of cinema, get reading HERE.