Wannabe partners in crime. Whatever happened to Robert Musgrave?

 

Whiz Bang

Bottle Rocket shoots up
some sparks from Austin.

by Coury Turczyn

 

It's a fable so often repeated that it's starting to smack of cliché. A first-time filmmaker, armed only with a maxed-out credit card and a handful of friends, manages to slap together a great movie for less than the donut budget of a Batman sequel. But it's true: More and more young filmmakers today aren't waiting for studio approval–they're making their own movies on their own terms with their own (or MasterCard's) cash.

The results are often hit or miss; nevertheless, more fresh voices are being heard and new visions are being seen. From Robert Townsend's The Hollywood Shuffle to Richard Linklater's Slacker, these motley debuts are often striking in their individuality. Lacking slick studio homogeneity, they often feel like a dip into somebody's private world. No matter how silly they can be, they embody an honesty that can't be duplicated by Hollywood actors or locations. With their unknown faces, unfamiliar landscapes, and crude construction, these films seem somehow more real. The filmmakers can't afford massive explosions or computer morphing or any of the other bells and whistles we've become accustomed to. They have to rely on the basics: plot, dialogue, actors. Which seems to be a formula Hollywood has left behind, but can still recognize enough to pick these films up for distribution.

Bottle Rocket is another one of those stories. Made in Austin (now established as a center for quirky self-expression by the aforementioned Slacker), it was originally a short film by a couple of University of Texas students. Wes Anderson (co-writer and director) and Owen Wilson (co-writer and costar) took their work to the fabled Sundance Film Festival, where they impressed producer/director James L. Brooks. He got them a deal with Columbia to make a full-length version. Smart move—Bottle Rocket is a promising sign of interesting films to come.

Bottle Rocket could be classified by that odious misnomer "slacker comedy," which has been applied to a long and inglorious line of dull, vacant movies about dull, vacant people. Although the characters of Bottle Rocket may be vacuous, they aren't boring. The story is about a trio of spoiled rich kids who, lacking any sort of direction or common sense, decide to become criminals. Unfortunately, their ideas about the profession come strictly from movies and TV–so, as they attempt to start their "gang," they mostly behave like overgrown kids playing cops and robbers.

The movie opens as Dignan (Wilson) helps his pal Anthony (real-life brother Luke Wilson) escape from a ritzy mental hospital–or, at least he thinks he is. Skulking through bushes, flashing a mirror signal into Anthony's second-floor suite, he acts like a secret agent invading KAOS headquarters. In reality, the hospital is a voluntary "resort," though Anthony doesn't have the heart to tell Dignan. Instead, he slides down a ladder of knotted bedsheets and allows himself to be rescued.

Later, Dignan shares with Anthony his step-by-step 50-year plan for crime success, which he has scribbled down on a legal pad. Step one, of course, is practice. They proceed to rifle through Anthony's parent's house–and steal Anthony's nickel collection. Once duly experienced, they hire a getaway driver (Robert Musgrave)–he's the only guy they know with his own car–and conduct their short, rather inept crime spree.

Beyond the sharp humor of the premise–slackers so stupid they think they can make a living like Robert DeNiro in Heat–what makes Bottle Rocket so engaging is its relatively unknown cast (an exception is James Caan as a real smalltime crook). Owen Wilson is a natural onscreen; he comes across like a young Dennis Hopper without all the huffing and puffing–intense, witty, probably crazy. His rants are echoes of TV dialogue heard a million times before and imprinted in our collective memories. His Dignan is a kook, to be sure, but an entertaining one. Luke Wilson, as the sweetly stupid Anthony, has a quiet, boyish charm that wins you over even as you wonder why he's so dull-witted. His attempts to woo a cleaning lady at a motel are, dare I say, endearing.

Quirkiness is a feature many films aspire to. Few truly achieve it. It can't be forced, and it can't be so weird as to alienate. It has to be a natural part of the movie. Despite some draggy sequences and a kind of aimless pacing, Bottle Rocket has quirkiness to spare. Its greatest achievement, perhaps, is its zany defusing of gangster glamour, reducing the Tarantino paradigm of pop culture criminals to the silliness it really is.

It'll be interesting to see what Anderson and the brothers Wilson come up with in their second at-bat. Hopefully, the screwball of mainstream movie making will evade them for a little while longer.

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