"Bottle Rocket" has just what its characters lack: an exact sense of itself. A confident, eccentric debut about a trio of shambling and guileless friends who become the Candides of crime, "Rocket" feels particularly refreshing because it never compromises on its delicate deadpan sensibility. Unlike most lost generation tales, this one never loses its way.
Inexplicably, almost criminally turned down by the Sundance Film Festival, "Bottle Rocket" is especially exciting because it was put together by a core group of under-30s all of whom are new to features. Director Wes Anderson co-wrote the script with his friend Owen C. Wilson, who, in very much of a family affair, co-stars with his brothers Luke and Andrew.
"Bottle Rocket" is likewise a story of the limits and strengths of friendship and other relationships. It generously invites us into the dim-bulb world of a gang that can't think straight, where daft self-delusion can always find a home and reality has only a limited appeal. A world whose always-in-earnest characters would be shocked to find out how funny they are.
Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen C. Wilson) are best friends in their 20s who are searching for a handle on life, though searching may be too strenuous a word for how they go about things. Anthony, the quieter, more apologetic of the two, is a wistful romantic who's just been hospitalized for what is euphemistically called exhaustion. His younger sister is hardly fooled. "You haven't worked a day in your life," she points out. "How can you be exhausted?"
Nominally more directed but in truth just as clueless is Dignan, who has as much juice as the Energizer bunny but no real idea of what to do with it. A high-intensity motor-mouth given to writing out plans for the next 75 years of his life, Dignan is desperate to be the head of a crack criminal team.
The only trouble is, the only people he has to work with are himself and his equally goofball friends. Terribly sincere and insecure, always concerned about whose feelings have been hurt, these earnest misfits are not the most promising material for a life outside the law.
Anthony and Dignan hook up with the equally disaffected Bob (Robert Musgrave), a timid soul abandoned by his wealthy parents and terrorized by his older brother Futureman (Andrew Wilson). Bob gets to join the gang because he's the only one they know who has access to the essential getaway car.
The kind of team the word "misadventure" was invented for, the boys are to serious criminals what bottle rockets (a slang term for cheap, unimpressive fireworks) are to real explosives. After pulling a few desultory jobs, they flee to an isolated motel to "lie low until the heat cools down." There they meet one of the only people in the film to have a true sense of direction.
Her name is Inez ("Like Water for Chocolate's" Lumi Cavazos) and she's an immigrant from Paraguay who works as one of the motel's housekeepers. Though Inez speaks no English, Anthony instantly falls wholly in love ("It's just so unexpected," he marvels) to the point where he's helping Inez make beds while a threatened Dignan grouses about his friend's flabby commitment to a life of crime.
Also directed is the man Dignan idolizes, the enigmatic, all-knowing Mr. Henry (James Caan). Head of a grounds-keeping organization called the Lawn Wranglers by day, Mr. Henry runs an erratic crew of career criminals by night, and being accepted as one of his cohorts is Dignan's ultimate fantasy.
With these two versions of purposeful reality to choose from, the question is not only which one Anthony will select, but whether he can bring himself to choose anything. "You're like paper," Inez accurately tells him through the good offices of a dishwasher/translator, "flying here and there."
Though "Bottle Rocket" is wryly amusing from beginning to end, the hard edges of the real world are never too far from its surface. And it is the particular grace of the film that though all its characters end up with something like what they're looking for, its not exactly how they'd imagined it would be. And getting it doesn't prevent them from staying delusional to the end.
A cracked coming-of-age movie merged with a comic caper, the kind of flip side to "Heat" that the Italian "Big Deal on Madonna Street" was to "Rififi," "Bottle Rocket" at times seems reminiscent of any number of things, including Donald Westlake's wonderful Dortmunder mystery novels "Bank Shot" and "The Hot Rock."
But, not surprisingly, what is finally special about this film is its singularity, the ways it does not seem quite like anything else. Starting life as a short film that was accepted at Sundance, "Bottle Rocket" found a patron in executive producer James L. Brooks, who recognized in this gentle comedy of alienation and its cures a unique cinematic voice. Here's hoping there are others out there this fresh and this bright.
* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: one armed robbery, but otherwise a gentle film.
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Luke Wilson: Anthony
Owen C. Wilson: Dignan
Robert Musgrave: Bob
Andrew Wilson: Futureman
Lumi Cavazos: Inez
James Caan: Mr. Henry
A Gracie Films production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Wes Anderson. Producers Polly Platt, Cynthia Hargrave. Executive producers James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, Barbara Boyle, Michael Taylor. Screenplay Owen C. Wilson and Wes Anderson. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman. Editor David Moritz. Costumes Karen Patch. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Production design David Wasco. Art director Jerry N. Fleming. Set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* At selected theaters.