'Bottle Rocket' At 25: Looking Back On Wes Anderson, Before He Was "Wes Anderson"

No one knew who the hell Wes Anderson was when his debut feature “Bottle Rocket” hit theaters 25 years ago this week– nor did they know Owen Wilson, who co-wrote and starred in the picture, or Owen’s brother Luke Wilson, who co-starred with him. The big name in that initial release was James L. Brooks, the Oscar-winning TV-writer-turned-filmmaker whose company, Gracie Films, had an overall deal at Columbia Pictures; that deal gave financing and distribution to low-budget films of the company’s choosing. Polly Platt, the legendary producer immortalized in the most recent season of “You Must Remember This,” was the engine at Gracie that made it happen, and the rest is history.

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What’s fascinating about watching “Bottle Rocket” a quarter of a century later is how it is, somehow, both clearly a Wes Anderson movie, and not yet quite one (in the way that its follow-up “Rushmore” was). Its $5 million budget was only low for its studio origins – it was far more than many an acclaimed ‘90s indie – but it was not quite enough for Anderson to create a full world onscreen, the way he would in later films, and you get the sense that it’s mostly using found locations and costumes, rather than building from scratch. (His stop-motion films are the most extreme example of this process.) 

Yet by viewing the Anderson aesthetic in this embryonic, stripped-down form, one can better appreciate he and Wilson’s gifts as screenwriters: their cock-eyed worldview, their distinctive ear for dialogue, the sprung rhythms of their scenes. That is all in place from the very first scene, as Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson) is checking himself out of a psychiatric hospital, and best pal Dignan (Owen Wilson) is helping him “escape” – unaware that it’s a voluntary facility. “Look how excited he is!” Anthony insists, when a doctor finds the sheet-rope hanging out of his window. “I gotta do it this way, Dr. Nichols, I gotta climb down.” The doctor shrugs; “Ok, but can you do it fast? This doesn’t look good.”

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The goodwill Anderson has towards these characters and their eccentricities is clear, right away, so it’s hard to judge them much when we discover that their greatest ambition is to be petty thieves. Dignan has it all written out as a multi-year plan – “I think you and I both respond to structure,” he says, which plays funnier now that Anderson is known as one of our fussiest filmmakers. The plan includes a “practice job” (swiping valuables from Anthony’s parents’ house) and a “real heist,” which they’ll execute as part of the gang of the enigmatic “Mr. Henry,” whom Dignan insists is “a very talented thief!” – a nice inside joke, since he’s played by James Caan.

Dignan is a rich comic creation, a cheerful would-be criminal who seeks to speak it into existence, steeped as he is in the buzzwords and ideas of the ‘90s self-help industry, and that old standby, the power of positive thinking. “That’s not the greatest attitude I’ve ever heard!” he tells his crew, after their first job nets a rather small payday. “Nobody got anywhere by complaining!” Most of the film’s laughs come from the petty squabbles and little personality clashes of these not-yet-hardened criminals – that, and their comical incompetence on the job, as when their “real heist” turns out to be the robbery of a Borders-style bookstore (“Do you have bigger bags, for atlases or dictionaries?”) And a fair amount of comic tension derives from the divide between who these guys are and how they see themselves; when a conflict develops with getaway driver Bob (Robert Musgrave), Dignan announces “BACK YARD! RIGHT NOW! LET’S GO,” a moment filled with the kind of outsized, blowhard masculinity that Jody Hill would later make a career of.

Anderson and Wilson reportedly spent a year and a half revising and rewriting their script, with the help (and, sometimes, prodding) of Brooks and Platt, and as a result, it’s like a finely polished jewel. You cannot touch the throwaway perfection of a line like “You know there’s nothing to steal from my mom and Craig” – not “my mom and dad,” not “my mom and stepdad,” but “my mom and Craig,” because Craig is a perfect, perfect stepdad name. (Another great, weird touch: Bob’s last name is Mapplethorpe, Robert Mapplethorpe, and it’s just… never explained.) 

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The delicacy of the screenplay becomes more apparent in the leisurely second act, when the guys go “on the run” and hide out at a nowhere motel, where Anthony falls in love with a maid, Inez (Lumi Cavazos), who doesn’t speak English, and he, of course, doesn’t speak Spanish. He makes awkward small talk (“You’ve got really good posture”) but eventually they fall for each other anyway; in a lovely, funny scene, Anthony gets a bilingual co-worker to translate his confession of love (and sex), but then the poor guy also ends up having to translate their subsequent fight (while he washes his dishes, no less).

As with any good crime picture, it’s all leading to a climactic big score, which, of course, they monumentally screw up (en route to a genuinely inspired final twist). But it ultimately doesn’t matter, because, at its conclusion, Dignan’s dream has come true – he’s being chased by the police, the dangerous criminal mastermind who the fuzz has taken down mid-job.

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Caan was the closest thing Anderson had to a movie star (and he brings a wonderfully cock-eyed, gonzo energy to the character), but that didn’t matter; he shoots Owen (or, as he’s billed, Owen C. Wilson), an odd-looking bird with a funny nose and nasally Texas accent, like he’s a movie star – and by sheer force of will, he made him one. There is, to be clear, much of what we came to know as the Anderson style in “Bottle Rocket”: in the framing (especially of the close-ups), the energy of the camera movements, and the well-selected needle drops. And he would continue, in the years and films to come, to work with the team assembled here, including cinematographer Robert Yeoman, composer Mark Mothersbaugh, production designer David Wasco, and, of course, the Wilson brothers. 

“Bottle Rocket” famously went nowhere in its original theatrical release, partially because a giant entity like Columbia had no idea how to release or market a tiny indie. Every studio wanted their own “Pulp Fiction,” and “Bottle Rocket” was marketed as something of a parody of that film and “Reservoir Dogs” and the many, many indie crime movies that filled art-houses and video store shelves in their wake. They couldn’t yet market the picture as what it was, with the only phrase that fully describes it: a Wes Anderson movie. That time would come soon enough.