Bottle Rocket was a thirteen-minute short that attracted the attention of Simpsons producers James L. Brooks and Richie Sakai, who helped get it into Sundance, where they were able to secure the financing necessary to expand it. Viola, Wes Anderson’s first feature! And certainly his most accessible. (Your friends who react with sighs and eyerolls when you mention The Royal Tenenbaums should be able to happily enjoy this one.) Despite working with cinematographer Robert Yeoman, pre-A.S.C., who would go on to photograph all of his subsequent pictures to date, their customary elegant widescreen compositions and obsessive attention to detail are not as sharply realized as they are from Rushmore on. One might even say they are largely absent. Early in the film a character asks one of the protagonists, Anthony (Luke Wilson), “you’re complicated, aren’t you?” To which he replies, “I try not to be.” Well, they didn’t have to try so hard.
Anthony checks out of a hospital where he’d admitted himself for exhaustion and reunites with his old friend Dignan (Owen Wilson). Together, with a marginal third friend Bob (Robert Musgrave) as getaway driver, they embark on a life of crime. At least, they try; after robbing a bookstore and living as fugitives for a few days in a motel, they go back home. After a few months apart, living straight, they get back together and give a life of crime another go.
The joke is that anyone but these people should be trying their luck as criminals. Yuk yuk yuk. Anderson, with his usual screenwriting partner Owen Wilson, begins with this film their tradition of writing affectionate stories about misfit-outsider characters.
Bottle Rocket's central gag is placing identifiable Gen-X slacker types within an unusual context; the gang try their luck as petty thieves but are clueless failures in crime as they are in straight life. Eschewing obnoxious self-consciousness, the filmmakers create a comedic blend of absurdity and underreaction whose tone is mostly soft and subtle; the comedy flows naturally from the overblown yet recognizable characters. It’s a fine line, but it’s pulled off; it’s not merely the lines that draw the laughs, but it’s the world of the film itself – the characters, setting, and story – that’s funny. Just not that funny.
It's a breezy comedy that exhibits hints of the filmmaking intelligence Anderson and company would bring to their subsequent films, and certainly a pleasant way to relax for ninety some odd minutes and have a few chuckles. Sometimes that's really all a movie should be.