Crime Spree

No genre should ever be written off completely. Just when you think there's no room for any more hipster crime films of the Tarantino stripe, along comes Bottle Rocket, a crazy and wonderful little picture that reinvents caper comedy by bouncing its conventions off real life. This startling feature debut by director Wes Anderson is an utter original--off the deep end yet lucid, buzzed on its own honesty, profoundly hilarious.

Genet said his aim was to make honest citizens dream about crime; Bottle Rocket's aim is to deflate those dreams. But its needles are cultural, not moral--it gently but relentlessly spoofs the middle-class white-boy fantasy of living dangerously.

The central character is Dignan (brilliantly played by Owen C. Wilson, who also cowrote the script with Anderson), a manic, fast-talking young fellow with a blond crew cut. He's a fusion of Bart Simpson and Eddie Haskell, and his dreams combine Tarantino with Horatio Alger and Gatsby--he wants to become a sophisticated professional thief and, to this end, he carefully writes lists of his goals in a spiral-bound notebook.

Dignan persuades two of his pals--dreamy, sensitive Anthony (Luke Wilson) and put-upon rich kid Bob (Robert Musgrave)--to join his gang, claiming to be an associate of an experienced criminal named Mr. Henry (James Caan). The three boys pull a job--they stick up the office of a bookstore.

They take it on the lam to a small town, where they stay at a grubby little motel. There Anthony falls in love with a pretty Paraguayan maid (Lumi Cavazos, much better here than she was in Like Water for Chocolate), and other conflicts arise which cause the "gang" to break up. Later, Dignan, Anthony and Bob reunite for yet another job, this one actually under the aegis of the mysterious Mr. Henry--the three are sent to raid the office safe of a cold-storage facility.

The trouble with synopsizing Bottle Rocket is that it probably sounds, in description, pretty routine. It is difficult to impart just how eccentric and unpredictable the movements of this film are--they're too subtle and free-floating to pin down. The plot is the joke of the movie, because we see how events are really unfolding and, at the same time, we know exactly how Dignan has pictured them unfolding.

During the sequence at the motel, Bob learns of a family crisis back home, and he wants to return (he owns the getaway car). Dignan's outrage at this isn't over the risk of capture--he talks in public, in his loud, penetrating voice, about the gang's fugitive status and need to change its identity. What bothers Dignan is Bob's lack of commitment to being on the lam, his lack of dramatic urgency.

In the robbery sequences, which are funnier than anything I've seen onscreen so far this year, we see Dignan desperately trying to act like a steely-eyed master criminal from an action movie, while the world around him stubbornly refuses to respond with sufficient "intensity," to use his term. Anderson is superb at conveying the sense that the world couldn't care less about these wan little crimes. Even the gangsters, apart from Dignan, don't seem to care about them that much; indeed, even the victims don't seem much more than annoyed. When the police actually do show up at one point, it's quite a surprise.

Shortly before they arrive, as the gang is fleeing the scene, Dignan insists on going back for a fallen comrade. Anthony tries to stop him, saying that if he goes back, the police will catch him. His pale, boyish face glowing ecstatically, Dignan responds, "No they won't--'cause I'm fuckin' innocent." Anderson's point seems to be that Dignan really is innocent, not legally but culturally--he's innocent of the possibility that he might not be the center of the universe.

With Bottle Rocket, Anderson goes where Tarantino fears to tread. Dazzling pop-exploitation satirist though he is, Tarantino hasn't taken real life out for a spin yet. He certainly hasn't yet quite aimed his barbs at the sort of dorky white boys who most love his films--he knows where his bread is buttered. The fabric of the world he offers his audience, and which it craves, is still one built out of other movies. And though it's never stated outright in Bottle Rocket, there can be little doubt that that's also where Dignan got his ideas about life.

The suspense in Bottle Rocket lies partly in whether Anderson will keep his balance--whether he'll resist the temptation to reach for poignancy. He doesn't try; he has the good sense to keep the tone toward his characters light and mocking, without ever losing affection for them. Paradoxically, this gives the characters a faint but distinct touch of sadness--try as they might, they simply can't escape being figures of fun.

Arizona Film Society, producer of the Saguaro Film Festival, is presenting the fifth annual "2-Day Film School in Arizona," Saturday, March 16, and Sunday, March 17, at JHT Productions (2415 West Huntington, in Eaton Business Park, Tempe). This intensive crash course in independent filmmaking splits the process in two: Saturday concerns itself with the nuts and bolts of film production--directing, writing, budgeting and shooting. Sunday concerns itself with the business side--how to market and sell a finished film, and how to keep the profits.

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