This is my review of Bottle Rocket, the Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Bottle Rocket on Blogcritics.
Bottle Rocket is the debut film from director Wes Anderson and introduces brothers Luke, Owen, and Andrew Wilson. The Blu-ray edition was released by The Criterion Collection in late 2008, fully four years after its release of Anderson’s second film Rushmore. Though less polished and flashy than Anderson’s successive work, Bottle Rocket remains Anderson’s most genuine, warm and sophisticated film. My appreciation for it seems to grow with every viewing thanks to its subtlety. Fortunately it is one of the most re-watchable comedies I have ever seen.
Bottle Rocket is a quietly funny masterpiece. There are no major gags, no crazy set-pieces, and it’s not a jokey movie at all. Its hilarity comes from the depth of its touching characters. A nuanced character study is not usually the most fertile field for comedy, admittedly, and it might take viewers a few watches to appreciate the precision of Anderson and Owen Wilson’s script (and of course Luke and Owen’s performances). But the film’s honesty shines in the hands of Wes Anderson and these talented actors.
James Caan has an good interpretation of the title, as mentioned in the commentary. A bottle rocket is a small explosive. As a kid, you might be excited to light one off, but the explosion is more or less tame and probably won’t get anyone into serious trouble. And that is true of these characters and the movie as a whole. All have a beautiful capacity to dream, but the goals are never as big a spectacle as the enthusiasm. As the film’s biggest dreamer Dignan plans a bookstore heist featuring explosives and a .357 Magnum, he draws himself as the star on the map because in his own mind, he is a star. Naturally he draws the getaway driver Bob as a “zero”.
When Anthony’s enthusiasm ignites Dignan, we want to see his dreams explode into reality. Although he’s not that smart, has skewed morals, and is a terrible criminal mastermind, we want Dignan to succeed because we know how happy it makes him to live out his fantasies. Characters without cynicism are rare these days. Owen Wilson’s enthusiasm is hilarious, but his fragility is heartbreaking. That is the theme of Bottle Rocket. These characters struggle to bring their dreams to life, to have that explosive moment of danger.
These characters are products of an environment that requires no risk. Anthony has retired to a mental hospital for exhaustion despite having never worked a day in his life. Dignan has a criminal mind but uses the money he steals for pinball and fireworks. Bob is well dressed but still lives with his parents, where he grows marijuana plants. Only Mr. Henry (James Caan) seems to be successfully living his dreams. Mr. Henry inspires Dignan to make his mark as a criminal while Anthony’s little sister, the most cynical character in the film, acts as the voice of reason.
Anthony is on the verge of growing up. When he meets Inez, a housekeeper where the gang is laying low, his emotions threaten Dignan’s 75-year plan. But Dignan is an iconic dreamer. Like Henry Hill from Goodfellas, Dignan always wanted to live outside the law. But his dreams take him further from reality; when his big heist falls through he literally seeks escape in a door labeled “No Exit”. His plan of incorporating dynamite, laughing gas, and pole vaulting into crime were never going to happen. His dreams are destined to fail because they are unrealistic. Even still, we get the sense that for Dignan, their attempt, their brief brush with danger, might have been enough. Maybe his dreams were only ever meant to be dreams.
The video, 1080p at 1.85:1, is a nice improvement from standard definition, but the clarity does not blow me away. I am able to make out some nice background action, out-of-focus business I hadn’t noticed before in standard definition. But some noise is there if you look for it, especially in scenes with washed-out, overcast skies. Considering Criterion released Bottle Rocket several years after its first DVD release, I was hoping for a better image.
The making-of documentary, new for Criterion, is an interesting 25-minute retrospective that incorporates the memories of several key players including the three Wilsons, Wes Anderson, James Caan, James L. Brooks, Mark Mothersbaugh and plenty more.
The disc includes a commentary from Anderson and Owen Wilson. Recorded exclusively for Criterion, it’s a nice casual dialogue which starts slow but adds a few nice insights and two likeable opinions. One story told by Anderson fits nicely: a big screening in Santa Monica went brutally, and only one comment card was full of enthusiasm for Bottle Rocket. They kept the card and memorized it for inspiration. Later Anderson coincidentally met the girl who left the card and said, “Here’s our audience. One in five hundred.” Fortunately the careers of the key players following the movie have helped that number significantly.
Deleted scenes are raw and unpolished, but a welcome bonus of somewhat indulgent scenes. Correctly edited out, in my opinion, there are still good laughs and more content for enthusiasts. An anamorphic screen test gives us a taste of what could have been a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it has promise. Murita Cycles by Barry Braverman is a strangely tangential short film that chronicles the life and junk-hoarding of a bicycle shop owner in Staten Island. Murray fills his shop and house with junk and excuses this with a type of sententious dementia. The short film shows a depressing version of the life of a dreamer and in truth, I would rather not have seen it. Though it was supposedly a heavy influence on Bottle Rocket, the tone is just the opposite.
A photo collection from Laura Wilson is a fine special feature; storyboards are for the completists. A storyboard is a tool and I don’t really get the appeal of looking at them. Yes, they came from Wes Anderson’s own hand, but he certainly didn’t imagine stick figures talking in the final film, and he’s no Picasso. The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1 is a mildly interesting talk with Tony Shafrazi, an eccentric art dealer, but the feature feels too pointless and egotistical to take seriously, despite being called a “lecture”.
As with most Criterion Collection films, this Blu-ray is the current definitive edition on the market. The supplements exclusive to his verison make it a worthwhile purchase. Bottle Rocket is a gem, and in my opinion one of the best comedies of all time. Martin Scorsese thinks so too.