Judge Erich Asperschlager has a rocket in his pocket.
"What are you putting that tape on your nose for?"
For all of his fans, there are Wes Anderson detractors who call his distinctive style gimmicky, and it bugs them to no end to know that all but one of his films have gotten Criterion Collection releases. For those of us who love his quirky, heartfelt movies, seeing them get the royal treatment is a great gift. Capping off a strange year where Anderson's most recent film, The Darjeeling Limited, got a sub-par DVD release from Fox, his first movie, Bottle Rocket, is finally out in a set that does it at least as much justice as it deserves, if not more. It's a smaller film than those that followed it, and certainly not Anderson's best, but why argue over whether or not a movie deserves the Criterion treatment? In a perfect world, every DVD release would get this kind of loving care.
Facts of the Case
After a lengthy stay in a mental hospital where he was being treated for "exhaustion," Anthony (Luke Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums) reconnects with best pal Dignan (Owen Wilson, The Darjeeling Limited), who greets his friend with a plan for them to become professional thieves working for a criminal mastermind named Mr. Henry (James Caan, The Godfather). Step one: rob a local bookstore with the help of recruited wheelman Bob (Robert Musgrave, Idiocracy), a bored, wealthy 20-something who lives in constant fear of his older brother, "Future Man" (third Wilson brother, Andrew). Step two: go on the lam, which in this case means hide out at a motel in the middle of nowhere and, for Anthony at least, fall in love with a Paraguayan housekeeper named Inez (Lumi Cavazos, Bless the Child). Step three: join up with Mr. Henry and pull off the heist of their lives. Of course, even the best laid 75-year plans can go awry.
It's near impossible for Bottle Rocket to have the same impact today that it did back in 1996. Then, it was the only Wes Anderson movie. The ideas and visual style were fresh. Now, watching it is like pulling out a high school yearbook and talking about how much everyone has grown. Bottle Rocket has a lot of the same elements in Anderson's later films, but on a much smaller scale. It's an intimate movie, a quiet movie. It's not in a rush to advance the plot—what plot there is—and Anderson isn't overly interested in cramming the frame with set pieces and precious details. Despite having a name actor like James Caan, and a big time producer like James L. Brooks, it feels like a film made by a few close friends. And it was. Back then, no one knew who Luke and Owen Wilson were. Watching Bottle Rocket now, it's hard to separate the careers they've had since from the fresh-faced youngsters they were then. It proves one thing, though: the Wilsons are never better than when they're working with Wes Anderson.
For all the beautiful moments and touches of humor in the script, Bottle Rocket works because it showcases the real talent of the Wilson brothers. Forget the celebrity gossip. Forget the overexposure. There's a reason Luke and Owen Wilson are stars, and this film is the evidence. As directionless former mental hospital patient Anthony Adams, Luke Wilson anchors the movie with his sweet sincerity and as one half of a legitimately touching love story. Owen's Dignan, meanwhile, takes full command of the film—setting the hapless, earnest tone, and acting as the spark that ignites the plot and keeps everything moving.
Perhaps Owen Wilson is so good as Dignan because he and Anderson wrote the script—and it is a wonderful script, oozing with '90s indie cred like a genteel Southern counterpart to Tarantino's frantic Pulp Fiction. Even with ridiculous lines about people stealing their own cars, and the farcical heist at the end of the film, there's not a moment that doesn't feel genuine. Dignan, Anthony, Bob—they're believable characters, even more so because they get so much wrong. They're terrible planners and even worse thieves, but there's never any doubt that they're friends. Test audiences may have hated it, but there's a reason Martin Scorcese loved this movie, and even if we can't watch Bottle Rocket through the same fresh eyes he did, we can take advantage of this Criterion release to revisit these unique characters.
Surprising to no one, the audio-visual presentation of Bottle Rocket: The Criterion Collection is top-notch. The film looks better than ever, thanks to a new hi-def transfer overseen by both Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The colors—from blue skies to yellow jumpsuits—pop, the darks are deep, and the picture is sharp. Only a few instances of distracting film grain keep it from matching the fidelity of Anderson's most recent projects. The 5.1 soundtrack doesn't do much besides give a little more punch to lesser '60s classics by Arthur Lee's band Love—"7 & 7 Is" and "Alone Again Or"—the Rolling Stones' "2000 Man," and Mark Mothersbaugh's score, but the mix is so crisp and the dialogue so clear it's hard to complain.
This two-disc set may not be packed with extras, but what's included, like the film itself, is a true family affair. Included with the film on the first disc is an audio commentary by Anderson and Wilson, recorded this past spring especially for this set. It's full of great memories, insights, and reflections. Disc two starts with the 25-minute "The Making of Bottle Rocket," filmed by Anderson collaborator and friend Barry Braverman—an artful collection of interviews with Anderson, all three Wilsons, and Musgrave, as well as James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, James Caan, and the incomparably cool Kumar Pallana. Also included is "Murita Cycles," a 27-minute 1978 documentary made by Braverman about his father. The compelling little film has nothing to do with Bottle Rocket other than that it inspired Anderson.
Though the picture quality is markedly worse than the feature, the eleven deleted scenes are well worth watching. Some add only minor story points, but others are more illuminating—including the origin of the "Future Man" nickname. The only problem with the deleted scenes is that there are so few, and almost all of them come from the first half of the movie. It's clear from the "making of" short and the audio commentary that a lot more scenes were cut out. I'm especially bummed we don't get to see the full Kumar plate-spinning sequence.
The jewel of the extras is the original 13-minute black and white Bottle Rocket short from 1992. Though it covers basically what happens in the movie up through the book store robbery, it has several different scenes and exchanges between Anthony and Dignan that were excised from the final script. It's a beautifully shot piece of independent filmmaking.
Rounding out the extras is gallery owner Tony Shafrazi gushing about the film for ten minutes in "The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1," anamorphic test footage shot when Anderson and Yeoman were considering doing the film in a wider format, original storyboards and photos taken by Owen and Luke's mother, Laura, Ian Dingman's cover and menu art, and a 20-page booklet that includes a reproduction of Dignan's 75-year plan and essays about the film written by Martin Scorcese and James L. Brooks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though Bottle Rocket is a satisfying film—especially for a first film—it's far from perfect. There's a jarring disconnect between the second and third acts, and the plot moves too slowly at times. I don't agree with those people who are angry about this movie getting a Criterion release, but I see at least some of their points.
If you don't have the hardware to handle the Bottle Rocket: Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, don't fret. The standard-def DVD looks plenty good—better, in fact, than the majority of studio releases. Though this oft-overlooked '90s classic may well be the last Wes Anderson film to get the Criterion treatment (if the trend begun by The Darjeeling Limited continues), the beautiful transfer and outstanding extras makes this a must-buy for all but the most fervent Anderson hater.
This rocket's no dud. Not guilty.
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