I Can’t Come Home, Grace, I’m an Adult.
When The Grand Budapest Hotel trailer came on in the theater a friend turned to me and said: “Such Wes Anderson.” And it’s true. There is no way to look at a new Wes Anderson movie and not know, in a matter of frames, the particular person responsible. But there was a time no one smiled in that particular way when a film cut to the title
Directed by Wes ANDERSON
in futura bold. And here is where we must start.
Anderson’s first feature, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, does have the futura bold. But even as the signifiersof his style start popping up (whip pans, slow motion, music montage) it becomes clear that Bottle Rocket isn’t a “Wes Anderson movie”. At least not in the way we think of a “Wes Anderson movie” today. That particular idea of Wes Anderson lurks somewhere in the future. And Bottle Rocket’s most surprising element is something almost completely missing from the rest of his work: looseness.
It isn’t Daisies or anything, but Bottle Rocket has a playful DIY edge unlike any of Anderson’s later features. It’s a movie made using whatever filmmaking resources came to hand. And if some of these resources are quite extravagant for an independent movie, they’re used to do things the movie needs and isn’t there just to show-off. And the edge comes from simple hunger. Bottle Rocket is a movie made by talented people who know they’re talented and would very much like everyone else to know that as well so they can get on with being famous and important. It’s a drive that isn’t quite as prominent in Anderson’s later features but it lies beneath this one. The film also comes packaged with the possibility of failure. Bottle Rocket had a trying production phase and there was always a chance the movie wouldn’t take off. There was a chance that Wes Anderson and his friends Owen and Luke Wilson would never get to make another feature film. And they know it too, lending a particular electric frisson to the more ambitious set pieces. The cast and crew are having a lot of fun doing them, but they also know there’s a chance they’ll never get to do something like this again.
But they have this one chance and they decide to make the best of it. And the best of it is quite good indeed, one of the most assured unique debuts in a decade that saw the freshman forays of Tarantino, Jonze, Aronofsky, O. Russell and P.T. Anderson.
But enough futzing about, let’s get to the story: Anthony (Luke Wilson) has just checked himself out of a mental institution and into the embrace of his friend and aspiring career thief Dignan (Owen Wilson). Dignan has big plans for their future: pull a heist on a nearby book store and use the job as a way to get into the good graces of Mr. Henry (I won’t spoil it). So the two recruit their car friend Bob (Robert Musgrave) and head off on a one-stop crime spree. They end up in a motel in the middle of nowhere where Anthony falls for fetching housekeeper Inez (Lumi Cavazos) and Dignan falls into a funk as his plans grind to a halt.
It’s a freewheeling go-nowhere kind of movie in the style of its leads’ existence. But if the movie cares little about its plot, it cares much more about its characters. And here let me posit what I think is Wes Anderson’s greatest strength as a filmmaker: he really, truly, deeply cares for his characters.
His films are full of dysfunctional obsessives, caught in the twilight between childhood and adult life. It is a specific type, persistent in the arts long before Holden Caulfield. And its trite nature does it no favors. Especially when it takes on such prominence. Combined with the specific dioramistic aesthetic the stories can feel like a child repeating the story of how they grew up in more and more detailed ornamentation, trying to trap the world like an ornithological sample. The impulse is understandable but it is also gravely limiting. It opens up the work to words like “precious” and “twee”.
But, as Film Crit Hulk posits, the true problem of twee is that it makes us question a film’s sincerity. The flourishes of quirk and whimsy can seem like distractions from the hollowness at the center of the story. I myself have often used the terms to rag on American independent movies that felt insincere. But Wes Anderson’s films are sincere. And his best work finds him a loving, generous deity.
And so it is with Bottle Rocket and Dignan.
Anthony might be our protagonist, but Dignan is our catalyst and by far the most complex and interesting character. He’s a tricky figure to navigate: loopy, infuriating, childish and, ultimately, innocent. But it’s essential that the film nail his character because he is the plot mechanism. Anthony and Bob carve out a small groove for themselves. Along comes Dignan with a wacky scheme and involves the two. They pull a heist and the plan falls apart because it wasn’t too good to start with and Anthony and Bob aren’t too committed and Dignan gets angry because things don’t go his way and the three argue and split and it starts over again, but bigger each time until something’s ready to give. So, sans Dignan, Anthony and Bob try to live normalish lives. If we want them to succeed then Dignan’s plans are destructive and annoying. On the other hand the film quiets down whenever Dignan is off-screen as because the other characters lack his vitality. Things start moving whenever Dignan shows up. This motion might be bad for the characters, but it’s energetic and fun and so Anthony and Bob can’t help but get caught up in it, just as we do. If he feels slightly off the artifice of the plot would likely be quite grinding.
But Dignan can be a problem outside his role in the plot. As a character he has to be balanced on a knife edge between sweet and prickly. He has a tendency to want control and lash out when he doesn’t get what he wants. He can also be callous and narrow minded such as when he dismisses Bob’s feelings about the incarceration of his brother. But he also has a good heart. When he sits Anthony down on the getaway bus the itinerary he hands him (for the next 75 years) is replete with things like:
- Meet people from foreign countries
Living into 21st Century:
- Anthony as you know there can be no way of looking this far ahead.”
And he’s also easily wounded, like when Bob’s brother teases him about his new jumpsuit. It’s kind of an absurd number of reactions the audience has to have to the character: excitement when he shows up, laughter at his antics, adoration of his sweetness, frustration with his childishness, sympathy when he’s left out and pity when he’s hurt. So it’s a good thing that Owen Wilson (also co-writing) is really, really good in navigating the role. It is, by far, the most delicate bit of acting that’s ever been asked of him and is seriously outside the actor’s Hollywood persona. But Wilson is honestly pretty amazing, managing the twists, turns and curlicues of the character well enough that the movie’s two emotional climaxes,
work like gangbusters.
Speaking of that ending (*heavy SPOILERS for the remainder of this paragraph*), this is also one of the few examples of a bittersweet ending in Anderson’s work. Dignan’s capture means that Anthony and Bob are free to put the rest of their lives back together if they can manage it. But they only get the chance because Dignan has been forcibly removed from their lives. And it’s clear they’ll miss him, despite his kookyness.
One last thing before we wrap this one up. In the introduction to this retrospective I noted the importance of Anderson’s style and aesthetic to the emerging independent film market. On that front Bottle Rocket makes a fascinating historical curio because it seems to encapsulate the most prominent aspects of independent American film before and after Anderson. There’s the homemade me-and-a-coupla-friends tone, the reliance on French New Wave stylistic standbys, the quirks in the characterization, the deadpan playfulness of the humor, the tinklyness of the score, the mash-up of image with recorded music, even the references to other movies (Bob dresses a bit Reservoir Dogs, n’est-ce pas?). All in all, it feels very much like an indie movie. But it’s also feels like the best kind of indie movie: the kind that has a clear voice and uses it to tell a story that would be hard to work out in the studio system.
All in all Bottle Rocket is pretty great and if I have spent most of this essay talking about the director rather than the movie, I apologize. But what we’re here for is Wes Anderson and as much as we want to impose our current understanding of Anderson on this movie, it’s pretty unfair. Wes Anderson wouldn’t become the Wes Anderson for a bit longer. But with his next feature he’d be soundly on his way.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)