Wes Anderson's movies have entertained and enchanted audiences for more than a decade now, offering a singular and yet strangely universal point of view time and again about oddballs and outsiders who simply want their creativity to connect with others. This week, Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox arrives in theaters (in limited release), and while we've already fallen in love with the his latest work (thanks in no small part to his particularly fertile adaptation of author Roald Dahl's source material), it seemed appropriate to go back and revisit his first film, the oft-forgotten Bottle Rocket, to remind ourselves where the writer-director started, if not where our love affair with his work began.
As longtime fans of the filmmaker (I remember reviewing this in 1996 when it was first released, and later declared his follow-up, Rushmore, one of my all-time favorites), this is one of his only movies I haven't seen what seems like a hundred times. Thankfully, Criterion's stunning Blu-ray, released late last year, not only offer the best-ever presentation of the film, but a bounty of extras to add context to Anderson's indefatigable creativity. But as for the movie itself?
The Facts: Bottle Rocket was released in 1996 after acclaimed writer-director James L. Brooks bankrolled Wes Anderson's feature film debut. The film also introduced Luke and Owen Wilson, who became stars in their own right. According to online sources, however, at the time of its release, the film received some of the worst test screening points in the history of Columbia Pictures. Financially the film flopped, earning back only $560,000 of the $7 million that it cost to make (although its widest release was in 49 theaters simultaneously), but it did receive a few nods from critics' groups, most notably a New Generation Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
What Still Works: Although the film is probably best viewed as groundwork for what Anderson did later, its conception, direction and performances are all not only convincing, but genuinely compelling. Anderson uses both Owen Wilson's frenetic, childlike energy and Luke Wilson's understated ordinariness to amazing effect, revealing unseen sides of two guys who otherwise might seem both less and more interesting, respectively. Anderson truly seeds every scene with the same, unifying theme, which would manifest itself again in virtually all of his subsequent work: his characters are dreamers, romantics, and idea men, whose ambition and abilities are always sadly disproportionate, so they ultimately end up settling for low-key success or noble failure. Anderson's hand is surest in this territory, and he manages to give their peccadilloes poignancy but never lets them languish in deeper melancholy, instead offering a whimsical optimism that surpasses the sadness and offers a sense of redemption that is both rewarding and really earned.
What Doesn't Work: Not a whole lot. It's obvious that Anderson was not only working on a limited budget, but still developing his signature style, so some of the execution is scruffier than one has come to expect from the director. But as a whole the technique, story and tone of the film is fluid and effective, without necessarily being as well-defined as in his later works.
What's The Verdict: Bottle Rocket is a really terrific movie, and even if it doesn't quite live up to all of Wes Anderson's later work, it's both a rewarding promise of things to come and a really great movie on its own. As indicated above, Criterion's Blu-ray is really the best way to watch the film, because the transfer is simply gorgeous, and it's packaged with a commentary track and several hours worth of bonus materials. But Bottle Rocket truly succeeds because when it goes off in front of your eyes, you know that you've seen something truly special.