Hidden Netflix Gems: Bottle Rocket

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Bottle Rocket” (1996)

Before Wes Anderson was a household name (at least among movie buffs), before receiving Oscar nominations for The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, before The Darjeeling Limited, Rushmore, and The Life Aquatic, yes, before all of that, he and Owen Wilson co-wrote the screenplay for Bottle Rocket. It was based on a short film of the same name they’d made in 1992 and released in 1994. Bottle Rocket was Anderson’s directorial debut and marked the first appearances of Luke and Owen Wilson, as well as their lesser known older brother, AndrewLeslie Mann, now famous for her many roles in husband Judd Apatow’s films, even had a small part, though it was eventually left on the cutting room floor.

Anderson’s first film is an interesting look back at the development of filmmaker’s now signature style: the methodical cinematography, with its bright coloring and compulsive need to center-frame the actors, along with humor so dry you’d better pack a canteen. Though a commercial failure, Bottle Rocket served as a launching pad for the careers of all those names above, so easily recognized here in 2013. But the film is worth a watch on its own merits, even for those who aren’t intrigued by the idea of taking a look at the early work of a couple of future A-listers. Thanks to Anderson’s burgeoning style and its innocent, humorous characters, Bottle Rocket has been certified fresh and holds an 80 percent rating on the TomatoMeter. If that’s not enough to sway you, Martin Scorsese named it his seventh favorite movie of the 1990’s. Yes, that Martin Scorsese.

Alright, enough blabber, onto the film itself. Bottle Rocket is a caper comedy about a couple of twenty-something Texans (just like Anderson and the Wilsons were when they made the film) determined to become master thieves. It begins when Dignan (Owen Wilson) aids his best friend Anthony (Luke Wilson) in “escaping” from a mental hospital. In truth, Anthony checked himself in voluntarily and it happens to be the last day of his stay, but he goes along with the charade to please his friend. Dignan, who is both endlessly optimistic and endlessly naive, then shares his “75-year plan” for a glamorous life of crime. Hopefully you’re beginning to see the style of humor the film employs.

Dignan’s scheme includes a few small-time heists before meeting with a Mr. Henry (played by James Caan, perhaps best known for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather), whose landscaping business Dignan worked for (and was fired from). Dignan seems to believe Mr. Henry is some kind of criminal mastermind, though whether or not that’s the case remains in question for much of the film, and the truth of the matter is best left unspoiled. Anthony goes along with the idea for much the same reasons he allowed Dignan to “rescue” him from the mental hospital—he doesn’t want to disappoint his friend, who’s oh so excited, and hey, he’s got nothing better to do.

Along the way, the two recruit Bob Mapplethorp (Robert Musgrave) as a getaway driver, because he’s the only person they know who owns a car. Although in fact, the car belongs to Bob’s wealthy parents. The eccentric trio endures a great deal of mockery from Bob’s brother, John Mapplethorp, aka Futureman (Andrew Wilson), whenever he crosses their path.

After they rob a local bookstore (in hilarious fashion), the guys hide out in a cheap motel near the Mexican border. There begins another major plotline, as Anthony falls in love with a Paraguayan maid named Inez, though she speaks little English and he no Spanish. That alone is a fantastic indication of Anthony’s character, and it makes it all the funnier that he’s the voice of reason in the film’s merry little band of thieves.

Bottle Rocket is great entertainment whether you’ve heard of Wes Anderson or not. Dignan, Anthony, and Bob are lovable misfits, and their interactions make for a great deal of subtle, witty humor. If you’re familiar with Anderson’s work and aren’t a fan then this one may not be for you. However, I recommend you check it out nonetheless. He’s the type of director that can take some time and understanding to appreciate. If you’ve put that time in and still don’t like his work, well, there’s no accounting for taste. I mean, anyone who disagrees with Marty freakin’ Scorsese on the subject of film is probably missing the point. Anyway, watch the damn thing and see for yourself.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday.