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Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket Features Owen Wilson's Funniest Performance

On the film's 25th anniversary, we look back at the offbeat comedy that introduced the world to Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson and established Wes Anderson's signature style.

by | February 21, 2021 | Comments

It’s almost impossible to imagine that Owen Wilson initially didn’t think he should act in 1996’s Bottle Rocket. From the very first scene, in which his character Dignan oversees an escape plan for his friend Anthony (Luke Wilson), who’s casually checking out of a voluntary psychiatric hospital, you’re sucked in by his energy, a weird mix of motor-mouthed enthusiasm and childlike wonder and sensitivity.

But Wilson had a point. As the film’s co-writer, Bottle Rocket was his baby — the other parent was co-writer and director Wes Anderson, a friend he met at the University of Texas at Austin — and his one shot. Perhaps he wanted to ensure the duo’s unique sensibilities were not muddied by the compromises that would inevitably come when first-timers make a big studio-backed movie. Maybe he figured starring in front of the camera and doing quality control behind it would be too much to take on. (This worry wasn’t unfounded: Bottle Rocket, which started shooting in 1994 and didn’t hit theaters until two years later, was plagued with rewrites, reshoots, and post-production woes.)

The film follows Wilson’s wannabe-thief of a ringleader as he and his zen-like friend Anthony and their rich pal Bob (Robert Musgrave) — three people who have no business breaking bad — pull off jobs to fall into the good graces of a bohemian crime boss (James Caan). While on the lam at a motel, Anthony, who doesn’t speak Spanish, falls for the only person he thinks understands him, Inez (Lumi Cavazos), who doesn’t speak English. Bottle Rocket is full of absurd setups like this, but somehow feels grounded and gentle, with an assured, invigorating directorial style. So to celebrate it turning twenty-five — Bottle Rocket was released in theaters on February 21, 1996 — and in anticipation of Anderson’s upcoming The French Dispatch, here are five reasons it remains special.

Audiences Mostly Didn’t Get It — But the Right People Did

Luke and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket

(Photo by Deana Newcomb/©Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Martin Scorsese picked Bottle Rocket as one of the ten best films of the 1990s. James L. Brooks liked the short “Bottle Rocket,” which played at Sundance, so much that he flew down to Dallas to meet “the boys” in their “flop” — his words — and greenlit the feature, which was put out by Columbia Pictures. Paul Schrader said he’d never seen a character like Dignan onscreen before — high praise from the creator of Travis Bickle. And Walt Disney Studios chair Joe Roth saw enough in Anderson and Wilson to bankroll their follow-up, Rushmore, for double Bottle Rocket’s budget.

But audiences, particularly the ones in test screenings, didn’t share that enthusiasm. “I’d never felt so humiliated,” Anderson recalled in the Criterion Collection commentary for Bottle Rocket, reliving a screening when dozens left the theater before the credits rolled. What’s more, Bottle Rocket didn’t get into Sundance, the festival that screened the original “Bottle Rocket” short to acclaim. “It was kind of like the end of the world,” Anderson said of the snub in Matt Zoller Seitz’s book The Wes Anderson Collection. When the film finally did come out, it pulled in roughly $500 grand at the box office, or about a tenth of its budget.

It Introduced Us to the Brothers Wilson

Critics, however, dug Bottle Rocket, which is Certified Fresh at 85%. A big part of the appeal back in ’96 was that it debuted these fresh-faced unknowns, Owen and Luke Wilson, who are both arresting in their own ways. Over the next decade, Owen and Luke would go on to become a comedic powerhouse and something of a kind-eyed leading man, respectively, and you can already see them playing to those strengths here. The two have an undeniable chemistry, with Luke’s more level-headed Anthony trying to temper — and inevitably indulging — the unrealistic expectations of Owen’s Dignan. Five years later, they would offer a more drama-tinged spin on this dynamic as another pair of brotherly longtime friends in The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s also worth shouting out Andrew Wilson, Owen and Luke’s older sibling IRL, who plays Future Man, the bullying brother of Bob in the movie, for his comic chops.

The Dialogue Is Loose, Fast, and Quotable

Wes Anderson has made a name for himself with his stylized visual calling cards, yes, but also his dialogue, which tends to feature lines that drip with irony, often delivered after pauses. Those lines are in Bottle Rocket — Dignan’s declaration that “Bob’s gone; he stole his car” springs to mind — but those deliberate beats are less prevalent. There are two scenes — a walk-and-talk before a “practice job” and an argument while planning a bookstore robbery — when the characters talk over each other in a way that feels naturalistic and almost a bit improvised. But the constant throughout, whether Anderson lets a line linger or not, is that Bottle Rocket’s script stays buoyant and truly funny. We’re partial to this exchange, when Dignan tries to ease a distressed Anthony with a picture of Mr. Henry’s crew:

DIGNAN: “Fact: I learned more in the two months I spent with Mr. Henry and his crew than I learned in 15 years of academic study. Fact: I can guarantee you after Mr. Henry sees us pull this job, he’s gonna take a personal interest in our future. Fact: Mr. Henry drives a Jaguar.”

ANTHONY: “Fact: Dignan, the picture’s not doing it for me right now.”

DIGNAN: “Well, does the fact that I’m trying to do it do it for you?”

It Hints at What’s to Come from Wes Anderson

Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, and Kumar Pallana in Bottle Rocket

(Photo by Deana Newcomb/©Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

About that style: Bottle Rocket isn’t as in-your-face with the Wes-isms as his later work. You won’t find any backdrops as meticulously designed as Margot’s bedroom in The Royal Tenenbaums or any breakdowns as breathtaking as the ship’s in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But his penchants are on display. There are some choice needle drops of ’60s songs (the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man,” Love’s “Seven and Seven Is”), as well as a slow-motion walk, a letter read aloud, a “binoculars” shot, references to inspirations like The 400 Blows, and other ingredients he’s synonymous with now.

It Maintains an Indie/Outsider Spirit

Owen and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket

(Photo by ©Columbia Pictures)

For all of its stylistic confidence, Bottle Rocket feels like you’re watching a group of friends make a movie. To be fair, that’s not far off base: Anderson, the Wilsons, Musgrave, and supporting actors like Kumar Pallana and his son, Dipak, were pals. Some were occasionally roommates. Scenes were shot at St. Mark’s, where the Wilsons attended and from which Owen was expelled. Bottle Rocket has an intimate, singular quality you don’t always get from a big-budget film. And while Anderson’s canvases would grow a lot bigger in subsequent films, something from Bottle Rocket would always remain a constant: stories that pull for underdogs, and outsiders that exist in their own little sealed-off worlds.

Bottle Rocket was released in theaters on February 21, 1996.

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