Bottle Rocket (1996)

A caper film absent of cynicism, Bottle Rocket plays like a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s stuffy and really lacks in the creativity department. You know how the heists are going to work, and there’s really not a whole lot of tension. Even the good examples in the genre stick to the formula harder than romantic comedies do to theirs. Bottle Rocket is so genuine and sweet that it overcomes these limitations simply by taking them completely at face value, while also dropping unconventional characters and dialogue into the mix.

The film begins with a prison break. The difference is that the “prison” is a mental hospital. A voluntary mental hospital. This sets you up for exactly what type of movie this will be. The two main characters are Anthony (Luke Wilson), the one in the mental hospital, and Dignan (Owen C. Wilson), the one who planned the escape. Anthony went along with the plan just to make his best friend feel wanted, which will be a recurring theme. Dignan is always the planner, Anthony always has to go along with these plans.

The next scene has them getting back in “the game,” which, because this is a heist movie, involves thefts. We see them ransack a house, successfully stealing most of the valuables. We later learn that this was Anthony’s house. If you’re not already charmed or intrigued, you had might as well skip this film already, because it maintains this level of silliness throughout. Even when an actual, real, not fake, heist happens, it goes down about as well as you’d expect.

Part of what draws me to Bottle Rocket is the dialogue. Most of it sounds like real people — not movie people — talking. Observations about the world, the people within it, and so on. It’s rather funny and charming, and because most of the characters are so sweet, it’s enjoyable to watch them. They’re naive, too, and get in way over their head more often than not, but because they do it with such childhood abandon, it’s not like watching the character in, say, a Tarantino film.

In fact, Bottle Rocket plays out like the antithesis to a Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. They have similar dialogue styles, and similar independent productions, and yet the Tarantino films are aggressive and has likable, yet despicable characters. Wes Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket, has such genuinely nice characters who just happen to be wannabe thieves. They’re all good people — save for the “real” criminal, a man played by James Caan — and you root for them not because of how interesting they are, but because they’re all so nice that you can’t help but cheer for them to succeed.

They’re also very funny people, and provide a lot of laughs during the course of the film. The dialogue — co-written by Owen Wilson and Anderson — is very enjoyable to listen to, but the situations themselves are just as good. The big heist at the end is especially enjoyable. It functions as the culmination of all the work put in by its characters, but because of who they are, it doesn’t go the same way that most of these movies do, and that’s refreshing.

Where Bottle Rocket tends to fall apart is in the middle. The beginning and finale are fantastic, but in the middle, which consists primarily of the main characters hanging around a cheap motel as they “hide out,” is meandering, and the love story between Anthony and a housekeeper, Inez (Lumi Cavazos), is creepier than it is romantic. Again, the naivety of its characters comes into play. What some people might call “stalking,” Anthony thinks it totally okay. It’s funny, but a little creepy, and the film drags at this point.

There is a third main character, the getaway driver named Bob (Robert Musgrave), dressed up to look like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Along with Anthony and Dignan, he is the third aimless soul looking to find himself. Bob is the coward, Anthony is the straight man, and Dignan is the child. Together, they form quite the team. And by “quite the team,” I mean “something that likely won’t work but will be really charming and funny and makes for a good watch.”

The actors are all good. The Wilson brothers make their acting debut with this film, just like Wes Anderson makes his directorial debut. It’s a solid effort all around for the newcomers, who show great charm and comedic timing. They are charismatic, and can play hapless individuals with ease. The actors do sometimes come across as slackers without a goal, so if those types of character irritate you, you’ll want to skip Bottle Rocket. Especially avoid the middle part, because a lot of meandering does occur.

Bottle Rocket is a very enjoyable film. It is devoid of cynicism, and like its naive characters, chooses only to look on the bright side of things. It meanders in the middle a little bit, but for the most part it’s a very funny, enjoyable caper film that is unlike most of the films in the genre, even though in many spots it’s exactly like those other films. It’s because of its sincerity and its unorthodox characters that it feels fresh. It is absolutely worth seeing, and I definitely recommend it, unless you for some reason hate people trying to find their way in life, or movies that are a touch quirky.

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