It only took two years for Wes Anderson to go from a promising young up-and-comer with 1996's Bottle Rocket to, with 1998's Rushmore, one of the most unique and important voices in independent American cinema. What's even more remarkable, perhaps, than the length of time is the sizable leap in quality between the two films. Rushmore is a true American original, a masterpiece of humanist comedy that introduced Anderson's visual sense as one unlike any to have come before (or to have been satisfyingly aped since, no matter how hard assholes like Jared Hess may try). Bottle Rocket is, well, not. But no matter how tempting it may be to dismiss Anderson's debut, to do so is to ignore the film's pleasures (minor, yes, but pleasures all the same) and to overlook how the film marks the foundations of the auteurial voice that would arrive fully formed just two years later.
Bottle Rocket opens with Anthony (Luke Wilson) staging a faked breakout from a mental hospital for the benefit of his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson). The performance of the act—Anthony voluntarily committed himself and could simply walk out the door at any time but had already promised Dignan to execute a breakout scheme—is indicative of the friends' approach to life, a constant desire for excitement and adventure by which to give their lives meaning. Upon returning home, Dignan introduces to Anthony (via a hilarious sight gag of Dignan's "75-Year Plan" notebook—a classically Andersonian touch) his scheme: The two friends will, with the help of Bob (Robert Musgrave), rob a bookstore, go on the lam, then hook up with local thief (and landscaper) Mr. Henry (James Caan) for just long enough to establish the means to go straight.
The bookstore robbery is an extended comic set piece nearly unmatched in Anderson's oeuvre for pure laughs, and it typifies the film's greatest strength: its sense of humor. One can feel Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson developing their comedic voices, which leads to snappy, absurdist dialogue scenes (the gang's fight over the gun) and a collection of the priceless blink-and-you'll-miss-them visual details that have become Anderson trademarks.
Unfortunately, this focus on comedy comes at the expense of two of Anderson's other great strengths: his humanity and his visual sense. Anderson has a great deal of empathy for his charming band of fuck-ups, but the characters are thinly drawn, and Anderson's attempts to lend the story emotional weight, like giving Anthony a ludicrously one-dimensional love interest in South American housekeeper Inez (Lumi Cavazos), largely fall flat. And though it seems unfair to compare Bottle Rocket negatively to Anderson's more accomplished films, it is difficult to see its competent visuals as anything but ramshackle when compared to the formal majesty of what was to follow. If Bottle Rocket is to be remembered for anything in Anderson's body of work, it should be as the film that gave the director the power and name recognition to continue making the films he wanted to make.
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Wes Anderson and director of photography Robert Yeoman supervised a brand new transfer of the film for this set, and the results are remarkable. As with all of Anderson's films, the use of color is crucial, and here the carefully arranged reds and yellows positively leap off the screen. It's enough to make you wonder why Criterion picked this, Anderson's least formally rigorous film, as the one to get high-def treatment. The audio track is fine: Dialogue is crisp and clean, and Anderson's typically excellent soundtrack carries the appropriate weight.
The extras are headlined by Anderson's original short, shot in 1992 in black and white for several thousand dollars. The film is charmingly ramshackle but bears little resemblance to Anderson's later work (it feels more like a goofy Jim Jarmusch one-off). The feature commentary with Anderson and Owen Wilson doesn't feature much insight into the film or its production, but it's nice to hear two good friends chat about their work. A making-of documentary goes a little bit more in-depth with regard to the production, if you're into that sort of thing. The set is rounded out by 11 deleted scenes, storyboards, and production photos, and a terrific collection of animated storybook menus.
While nowhere near the same level as Anderson's subsequent films, Bottle Rocket nonetheless provides a sweet, funny look at a young director finding his voice.