This is my first analytical work in a while. God it feels horribly ramble-y.
Bottle Rocket is Wes Anderson’s first film, but it is the one that I watched last. As I point out in my introduction to this series, I have grown a little tired of Wes Anderson in recent years, with my frustration reaching its apex during a viewing of Darjeeling Limited. (Note: since I don’t remember very much of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and since it is a more family-oriented film, I don’t see if as falling into the same traps as Darjeeling Limited, at least for the moment.) So in this sense that Wes Anderson had become almost a parody of himself, I found Bottle Rocket refreshing. It is very much unlike most other Wes Anderson films.
(This paragraph contains the most spoilers.) Bottle Rocket is about the friendship between two men: Anthony (Luke Wilson, with amazing hair) and Dignan (Owen Wilson, without his normal flowing locks). The beginning of the film shows Anthony pretending to escape from a mental institution he has been residing at voluntarily for exhaustion. He shimmies down a string of bed-sheets in order to keep his friend Dignan’s delusions of grandeur alive. In fact, this seems to be Anthony’s main purpose for the first major portion of the film. Dignan has it in his mind that he and Anthony must become professional thieves in order to work with Dignan’s local idol and former boss: Abe Henry. The two enlist the hapless Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) in their scheme because Bob has a car. Bob Mapplethorpe has two brothers that beat up on him constantly and a marijuana crop growing in his parents’ backyard. After clumsily robbing a bookstore, the three escape to a motel in the middle of nowhere to lie low for a while. The group falls apart at the motel: Anthony meets and falls in love with a Paraguayan housekeeper named Inez and Bob’s brother gets arrested for the marijuana crop, prompting Bob to panic and leave Anthony and Dignan behind. Anthony’s and Inez’s relationship begins to create a rift between Anthony and Dignan. When the two of them leave the motel, Dignan sabotages Anthony by not passing along Inez’s message that she loves him. The two men get in a physical altercation on the way home and part ways. After some time away from each other, all three men join up again under the mentorship of Mr. Henry (James Caan) to rob a cold storage facility. Before they carry out the operation, Anthony and Inez reconnect and admit their mutual love. The robbery goes wrong, Mr. Henry steals all of Bob Mapplethorpe’s parents’ possessions, and Dignan winds up in jail. In the last scene, Anthony and Bob Mapplethorpe visit Dignan, both having successfully moved forward with their lives.
It feels significant—and perhaps wrongly so—that Bottle Rocket is the last Wes Anderson film that I’ve ever seen. It seems unlike any of the others in so many ways, especially when preceded by what I believe to be Anderson’s two strongest films. I suppose the notable differences right at the beginning include the lack of an identifiably iconic soundtrack and also that Anthony and Dignan seem like ridiculous people, but real people nonetheless. The dialogue is much more improvisational than Anderson’s others, and they don’t look like they’re from a bygone era. They also have much filthier mouths—particularly Bob Mapplethorpe and his goony older brothers (one of which goes by “Future Man,” which I think is fucking awesome). The only character in the film who appears to be a typical Anderson type is Robbie (a thirty-second part, if that), the innocent stock-boy caught up in Anthony and Dignan’s bookstore robbery: he wears a red oxford with a bowtie, and a teal cardigan. Mr. Henry seems like a prototype for Royal Tenenbaum—crooked and suave. The moment where he goes apeshit on Future Man in a country club was one of my favorite moments in the film.
One thing that I like about Bottle Rocket is that I think here Anderson shows the least amount of sympathy for his own characters. Maybe I mean that he treats them with the least care—the improvisational quality I mention above is much rarer in every other Anderson film, where it seems the rule is that there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. Perhaps as a result of this, the characters in Bottle Rocket strike me as less-fraught man-children than other Anderson characters. In fact, I think that this is the Wes Anderson movie in which we learn about the characters in the most organic manner. I started out feeling sorry for Anthony and not liking him as much the more I learned about him, whereas I started out not liking Dignan and feeling sorrier for him throughout the course of the movie. At first, we know that Dignan and Anthony were friends before Anthony’s stay in the mental facility, but eventually we learn that Anthony grew up wealthy and Dignan did not, and even that Dignan used to mow the Mapplethorpe family’s lawn for a living—a job his idol fired him from. I’m not sure that we’re supposed to like the characters all that much. I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for them more than anything. I wished Anthony didn’t insist on taking care of Dignan. I know I pitied Bob Mapplethorpe because everyone treats him like crap. Dignan is just sad—friend of poor-little-rich-boys who goes to pathetic lengths to impress Abe Henry, who clearly has no respect for him. It’s summed up perfectly in this little monologue of Dignan’s: “Best job I ever had. Working my way up, meeting people, listening to stories. One day he walks over and he says ‘Dignan, you’re out.’ Just like that. By the way man, he was right. Just because it’s a front doesn’t mean someone doesn’t have to do the actual landscaping.” But, like I said, they didn’t seem as fragile as the sensitive wunderkinds Max Fischer and the Tenenbaum children. And they were all kind of dicks. Dignan even proves himself to be unstable by hitting Anthony in the face with a screwdriver. By contrast, Owen Wilson’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums runs over a dog while high, an action he apologizes for and also triggers his realization that he needs to enter rehab. For the rest of Bottle Rocket, I was waiting for Owen Wilson to flip out and stab someone or something.
And even though the characters were kind of dicks, I still liked them, and the movie hit home for me in a few places. Perhaps that’s more a testament to where I am in my own life. I have delusions of grandeur like Dignan about doing something that I think is awesome but not working hard enough to pull it off. Anthony and Bob Mapplethorpe, both from well-off families, are adults who live at home and pick up paper routes once they return from being on the lam. At the time I was viewing this, I was working a job I hated where I didn’t get to use my brain, so that hit home for me. So, too, did Anthony’s feelings on the subject: “‘I’m usually so exhausted now at the end of the days that I don’t have time to think about blown opportunities or wasted time.’” Also, moving back home after college made me sympathize with Anthony’s story of why he went to a mental hospital for exhaustion: “One morning, over at Elizabeth’s beach house, she asked me if I’d rather go water-skiing or lay out. And I realized that not only did I not want to answer that question, but I never wanted to answer another water-sports question, or see any of these people again for the rest of my life.” Anyway, yeah, quarter-life crisis grumble grumble.
I’ll admit that I was puzzled by what Anderson was trying to do with the robbery. Abe Henry’s cronies are uncomfortable racial caricatures, and, moreover, everyone but Mr. Henry himself is presented as so incompetent that any viewer of the film will know it’s a doomed mission right away. I suppose it’s to see how Dignan’s grandiose dreams are finally crushed, but the manner in which they were crushed wasn’t terribly interesting or funny. I wish I hadn’t returned the film to the library. It could use another viewing. However, when Anthony tries to warn Dignan from going back inside the factory because he “‘know[s] what’s going to happen’” if he confronts the police. Dignan’s retort? “‘No, I don’t. They’ll never catch me, man. ‘Cause I’m fuckin’ innocent.’” Perhaps I shouldn’t look toward Dignan and should instead look toward Anthony and Bob Mapplethorpe, since they can get on track toward functional adulthood once Dignan is behind bars. No more are they susceptible to his plans, as the last scene proves when Dignan fakes them out with one of his escape plans and they reject him before he breaks into laughter.
In addition to the mere presence of Mr. Henry’s cronies (the African-American Applejack, Indian Kumar, and Japanese Rowboat), the romantic story embedded in Bottle Rocket is problematic in the way it handles the race. I felt somewhat uncomfortable with the way Anthony’s relationship with Inez was presented. The section of the film spent at the motel contained a weird hybrid of knowledge and naïveté. When Anthony and Dignan go to a bar with Inez, or when Anthony starts forming friendships with the Hispanic housekeeping staff, we see how out of touch their white privilege can make them. It’ s obvious there’s a much more diverse world out there, and they visit it briefly, but it seems to have little impact on them. When he first meets Inez, Anthony asks, “Which part of Mexico are you from?” She is from Paraguay, actually, but it’s not really a “teaching moment” for Anthony about Latin American diversity. Instead, she’s just a Paraguayan maid. Inez keeps this weird “exotically innocent” quality about her, due mainly to the language barrier between them. This language barrier just evaporates when the lovers are separated. It’s the easiest romance in the world. So easy it doesn’t make sense and Anthony’s racial insensitivity has no repercussions for him—he gives Inez all their money, which just seems so insulting, and yet nothing comes of it other than a fight between Anthony and Dignan. Considering, too, that Inez is the opposite of the rich white sorority girl who chats up Anthony at the beginning, it seems like the line is blurred between whether Anthony’s romance with Inez allows him to see things from a different perspective or if her “exotic” appeal is the magical cure to his white boy problems. Considering that Inez is a pretty weak character in the film, I think it’s more the latter than the former. I’m planning on talking about how Wes Anderson treats race a little more in the upcoming Darjeeling Limited post, since that film is the most problematic for me and many other critics of Anderson.
So yeah, those are my thoughts on Bottle Rocket. I frequently return to the last line and I can’t decide how I’d like to interpret it: “Isn’t it funny how you used to be in the nuthouse and now I’m in jail?” Cue slo-mo walk. Roll credits.
Soundtrack Favorite Pick: “Over and Done With” – The Proclaimers