Bottle Rocket (1996)

On the run from Johnny Law. It ain't no trip to Cleveland.

All right, class, take your seats. Open your textbooks to page twenty-seven. Johnny, spit out that gum.

As you will recall in our last lesson, comedy is not about perfection. You cannot have a peaceful, idyllic setting where everybody is nice to each other and expect people to find it funny. In your basic comedy motion picture, humor is derived from the utter dysfunction and idiosyncrasies of its characters. The comic nature of a film rests on the conflicts suffered by its cast, and in an environment where conflict does not exist, there is no comedy.

Humor can also be derived from worst-case scenario situations where the so-called perfect plans laid out by its protagonists end up backfiring or going horribly, horribly wrong. Based on the aforementioned principle, you cannot have a movie where everything goes exactly as planned, where nothing unexpected happens, and hope people will accept the lack of conflict. These are what I've suddenly decided to call "bad karma movies".

There are two basic forms of bad karma movies. First, there are gradual bad karma movies where everything starts out cheerful and optimistic, takes a bad turn early on and progressively gets worse as the film goes on. An example of this would be Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis in Neil Simon's The Out of Towners, who travel from Ohio to New York City for a high-prospect job interview where everything happens to them, from transit strikes to muggings to chipped teeth. You could also count the many exploits of the Griswolds from the National Lampoon Vacation movies, or Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, another movie about a nightmarish road trip.

Then, there are the sudden bad karma movies which draw more from the law of averages. In these films, the main character formulates the perfect scheme and EVERYTHING falls exactly into place. Things just keep getting better and better from that point on only for one seemingly minor flaw, element or Chekhov's gun to blow the whole plan up in their face. In Mel Brooks' The Producers, for instance, we have Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder plotting to cash in on a Broadway flop by adapting the most tasteless show ever made--a musical written by an ex-Nazi that glorifies Hitler--hiring a famously bad director, and casting the most incompetent actor in the business to play the lead role, only to discover that their zany madcap creation has inadvertently become a smash hit on its opening night.

In the 1996 feature film Bottle Rocket, which marked the movie debuts of director Wes Anderson and two of its leading men, we have three characters:

  • Anthony (Luke Wilson), a young slacker who at the start of the film "escapes" from a voluntary mental hospital he had checked into for exhaustion, despite according to his little sister Grace never having worked a day in his life;
  • Dignan (co-screenwriter Owen Wilson), the self-designated mastermind of the trio who once worked for a landscaping company fronting for a small criminal organization, but was later revealed to be fired;
  • and Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave), the getaway driver, since he is the only guy of the three who has his own car. He also has marijuana growing in his parents' backyard and an older brother known only as "Future Man" (Andrew Wilson).

Dignan has set up an elaborate little plan for his soon-to-be partners in crime--start out with practice heists to build up their skills and get a feel for their craft, then move on to their first major burglary to establish a cash base, and then hopefully hook up with Dignan's former boss Mr. Henry (James Caan), with whom they can build a name for themselves as criminals. Dignan's plan has laid out a plan elaborate enough to cover the next seventy-five years or so.

The Three...Caballeros? Amigos? Stooges? Which do you think?

The movie can be split into two parts, both of which cover a different type of bad karma movie. The first part, which focuses on gradual bad karma, begins when Anthony and Dignan return from the mental hospital. They immediately get into practice with a quick break-in and burglary of a seemingly random suburban home. Afterward, they evaluate their performances--on the plus side they were in and out quickly and they had good intensity, but on the other hand they lost points for thoroughness since they left a lot of valuables behind. Dignan had also taken a pair of earrings which weren't on their list--which turn out to be earrings which Anthony gave as a gift to his mother; they had been robbing Anthony's parents' house.

After buying guns from an out-of-town dealer and bickering with each other while planning their next heist, the trio successfully relieve a local bookstore of a small amount of cash and then "go on the lam", along the way buying some fireworks that Dignan gleefully fires out of the car window, which is where I'm guessing the name of this movie comes from. They "hide out" at a motel "until the heat dies down", where Anthony falls in love with Inez (Lumi Cavazos), a Hispanic young housekeeper who knows next to no English, and despite the language barrier the two of them hit it off really well, while Bob gets a phone call--the police have found his marijuana patch and arrested his brother on suspicion of drug dealing. Bob is concerned to the point that early the next morning he takes the car back to the city to help Future Man, leaving Dignan and Anthony stranded at the motel.

As the two check out of the hotel, they continue on with their long-term plans in an abandoned Alfa Romeo...which breaks down on the side of the highway shortly after they leave town. When Anthony reveals that the envelope he had asked to give to Inez as a goodbye gift had all of the rest of their cash inside it, the two have an argument and head off in different directions.

That glitch in the Matrix must be bigger than we thought...

We then come to the second part of the film, which takes the second bad karma movie approach of extensive buildup to ultimate calamity. Anthony narrates in a letter to Grace that he has gone back to his old town and is rooming at Bob's house, where the two of them have part-time jobs now. But their normal routine is interrupted by the arrival of Dignan, who tracks down Anthony and tells him that he is back up with Mr. Henry and has arranged a major heist--with two of Mr. Henry's associates, Applejack and Kumar (Jim Ponds and Kumar Pallana, respectively), Dignan plans to break into the Hinckley Cold Storage building and clean out the safe in the office. He tells Anthony about it and insists that he get in on. Mr. Henry seems to be a nice enough guy--he is a father figure to Dignan, takes a liking to Bob and even tells off "Future Man" at their fancy country club, so why not? Anthony agrees as long as he lets Bob in on it as well.

The stage is set, the gang is all fired up, and the plan is so foolproof it's packing an extra can of idiot repellent. The only thing missing is someone uttering the five most dreaded words of dialogue in motion pictures: "What could possibly go wrong?"

It all starts when Anthony, who has rekindled with Inez after Dignan finally gives him her message and he calls her up to clarify it, confesses to Bob that he doesn't want to do the robbery, to which Bob agrees. Shortly afterward, Bob's walkie-talkie gets busted, which sparks a chain of minor calamities which snowball out of control and finally sees Dignan locked out of the van right when the police arrive while most of everyone else has ran off. While all this is going on, Mr. Henry helps himself to everything of value in Bob's house.

In the last scene, Anthony and Bob visit Dignan at the state pen serving a two-year sentence, and the three of them chat over fast food. Bob and his brother have grown closer together while looking to replace their stolen furniture, while Anthony and Inez are still together, After rattling off an escape plan to his friends and the audience for a final fake-out gag, Dignan remarks to Anthony "Isn't it funny how you were in the nuthouse and now I'm in jail?" before slow-motion hiking his way back to prison.

Hey look, it's the little-known Blue Man Group tribute band, The Yellow Man Group.

While not a particularly complex movie as well as an under-performer at the box office due to its very limited release, Bottle Rocket does manage to squeeze in both kinds of cinematic misfortune into a ninety-minute running time, which is quite an accomplishment for a film in the mice-and-men sub-genre. Anthony, Dignan and Bob are by no means competent criminals, or competent human beings for that matter, so you automatically assume that any grand master plan they come up with would either slowly unravel or just collapse altogether, but luckily their characters keep the overall message of the film from crossing over into areas of unfunny normality. Other compliments I can pay this film is for its upbeat soundtrack and fast-paced witty dialogue.

*bell rings*

Okay, that's all for today, students. Your assignment tonight is chapters one through four of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men for tomorrow. Next time we look at a movie about people who can make your head explode. Timmy, see me after school today.

All together now: "DON'T TASE ME, BRO!"

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