February 15, 2003

From Gerald R. Lucas

Bottle Rocket: A Mini Review

I watched Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket tonight. It seems to be a story about a group of friends that have big dreams, but end up being as ineffectual as a bottle rocket. I’m actually reminded of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern trying to make more out of their parts than they can actually handle, so they end up dead. Anthony and Dignan do not end up dead, but the latter—the organizer, the planner, and the dreamer who longs to be a big-time criminal or at least something more than a small-town nothing — drags his reluctant friend Anthony into his plots. Yet, while their fates are nothing like the imaginings of Dagnan, Anthony ends up adjusting to his part in life even while his friend serves his jail time.

Anthony appears to be a product of affluence who doesn’t know what to do with himself. One of the movie’s central themes seems to revolve around growing up and taking responsibility for one’s life and actions, but Anthony has tried to defer this maturity to voluntary half-way houses and petty crimes. He desires for something to give his life direction and meaning, but, like so many of us, cannot seem to find that pole star.

The beginning of the film finds Anthony leaving his voluntary stay at a mental hospital and reuniting with Dagnan, the consummate romantic. Even Anthony’s stay in the hospital must end as though he is escaping to feed Dagnan’s fantasy of adventure and excitement. Like Anthony, Dagnan seems to be a lost soul searching for guidance, but the path he chooses for himself—the one he feels will make his life exciting and significant—is one of crime, fed by the photographed figure of Mr. Henry in front of his “gang.” This photo fills Dagnan with inspiration, even though the story about the picture is almost solely comprised of Dagnan’s fancy.

After the successful and fatuous burglary of a book store, Anthony, Dagnan, and Bob (another one of their rich and aimless friends who has his own troubles with reality in the form of an overbearing brother) go on the lamb, though it seems no one has even noticed their transgression. At an Anytown American motor lodge, Anthony makes a discovery: he sees Inez, the motel’s maid(en), and immediately falls for her, though she speaks very little English. Inez soon provides Anthony with his reason for living, leaving Dagnan floundering without his new gang.

The movie addresses humanity’s need for fictions in order to make the mundane significant—actually livable. Some of us reach too high, like Dagnan, and get stung by those who seem to have their shit together, in this case Mr. Henry, an amoral figure that makes out at the expense of the little guys: i.e. Dagnan, Anthony, and Bob. Yet, even though Mr. Henry’s character is questionable, he does provide the impetus for Anthony’s love and Bob’s potential reconciliation with his brother. Even Dagnan seems content at the end: with time to serve in jail, he does not have to face the abyss of freedom.

At first glance, Bottle Rocket seems to be about nothing, as random as weekend drive in the country. Yet, in this way, Bottle Rocket mirrors the difficulties that we all have to face eventually: what do we do with time? What fictions do we fill the void with in order to make it through this lonely and often cold life? Yeah, we can stare at the blank wall in anguish, get kicked around by the bullies of the world, or try to be more than what we can be, but shooting off a couple of bottle rockets doesn’t hurt anyone and ends up being a great way to spend a summer afternoon.