Taking a trip into Wes Anderson's head is like going into a parallel universe where most things are the same, but the nature of reality is just slightly warped.
And while the world of "Bottle Rocket" -- Anderson's first collaboration with actor Owen Wilson -- is a little rough around the edges, the absurdist crime caper is a jewel. And while it sounds like yet another goofy comedy, Anderson's signature quirkiness is already in place -- a heavy dose of his dry, erratic, clever wit and some lovable misfit characters.
After being treated for exhaustion ("You haven't worked a day in your life. How could you be exhausted?"), Anthony (Luke Wilson) has just been released from a voluntary mental hospital.
His "rescuer" is his idealistically weird pal Dignan (Owen Wilson), who has decided to become a master criminal. To this end, he has created an elaborate 75-year plan of theft and heists. You can guess where that's going to take them. After an absurd first heist, they recruit the timid Bob (Bob Musgrave) as the getaway driver, as he is the only one who has a car.
And so the odd little trio practice for a while on smaller-time burglaries, such as robbing a bookstore and Anthony's own house -- then hiding out at a motel, where Anthony falls in love with the pretty South-American maid (Lumi Cavazos). However, the guys find themselves in hot water when they bump into a REAL master criminal (James Caan), and Bob bails out on them. The hot water is rising.
Comedic crime caper movies are hard to make, because of the need for balance between the criminal activities and the comedy... without making any of it too stupid or over the top. Wes Anderson solves this dilemma by making this a caper carried off by affluent young slackers who could easily do stuff other than thieving their way through life. And that's half of "Bottle Rocket's" comedy appeal right there -- the unlikely criminals.
The other half is handling humor that would be stupid and forgettable in another auteur's hands. Wes Anderson's uniquely quirky touch is a little rough in his full-length debut, but it's that slightly unpolished touch that makes his offbeat style such a delight here -- as an example, Anthony "escapes" from a hospital that he can leave anytime he wants. That unnecessarily complex opener sets the tone of the rest of the movie, of thrill-seeking young men who are just a little out of sync with the rest of the world.
And "Bottle Rocket" shares the dry, funny, erratic humor of Anderson's later movies, albeit in a slightly more energetic manner ("Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers..." Dignan explains). And the scripting is peppered with a thousand funny little lines ("Which part of Mexico are you from?" "Paraguay"). Anderson and Wilson avoid being self-consciously cool, in favor of being earnestly quirky.
And the Wilson brothers -- Owen and Luke both -- are in fine form here as the Odd Couplish friends, especially when interacting with one another. Anthony is calmer, more laid-back and thinks a lot, while Dignan is idealistic and wacky almost to the point of mental illness. This pair have a certain innocence despite their illegal ambitions, and while they're goofy misfits, they're not the kind you laugh at.
Since most of Wes Anderson's work has been released in a Criterion deluxe edition, it's about freaking time someone gave similarly loving care to "Bottle Rocket." Both the forthcoming double-disc DVD edition and the Blu-ray edition are going to have a wealth of extras for fans of Anderson's, and it's hard to imagine that there's any more it would need. Criterion has apparently not only put in everything it needs, but actually slightly more.
In particular, it has newly restored picture, eleven deleted scenes that were left on the cutting room floor, actor/director commentary from Anderson and Owen Wilson, a new documentary about the making of the film, screen tests, storyboards, behind the scenes photographs, and a booklet with essay by James L. Brooks and "appreciation" by Martin Scorsese. As an extra bonus, it has some short films as well -- a 1970s half-hour film called "Murita Cycles" about a bicycle repairman/philosopher, and the 1994 short film "Bottle Rocket" that served as the basis for the full-length one.
"Bottle Rocket" is a bit erratic and rough around the edges, but it's also fresh, weird and delightfully zany. Anderson should try his hand at this sort of stuff again, because he has a rare talent for such films.