Arts & Culture

The War on Boredom: “Bottle Rocket” on DVD

It’s often said that only the boring fall victim to boredom. A better way of putting this is that there are those on whom boredom acts as a powerful sedative or paralytic, and those for whom even a few parts … Read More

By / December 4, 2008

It’s often said that only the boring fall victim to boredom. A better way of putting this is that there are those on whom boredom acts as a powerful sedative or paralytic, and those for whom even a few parts per million have exactly the opposite effect. The early films of Wes Anderson, a director I’ve come to loathe, introduced us to characters who took life’s lemons and cooked them into crystal meth. The best of these, pace all the Rushmore fans out there, is Bottle Rocket (1996). I first watched Bottle Rocket, which the Criterion Collection has rereleased in a two-disc edition, on my sixteenth birthday. I had just secured gainful employment at Video Galaxy and was, needless to say, bored—despite the fact that I was separated from an Alexandrian library of pornography by nothing sturdier than a pair of swinging saloon doors. (Circumstances prevented me from getting my driver’s license until the following year, so actual girls were as yet prized above rubies.)

I won’t pretend that Anderson’s debut hit me like a fabulous yellow lightning bolt from the clear blue. Nor did I catch its dutiful homage to Catcher in the Rye in the person of Anthony Adams’s precocious younger sister, Grace; it didn’t dawn on me until Anderson reincarnated Salinger’s Glass family in The Royal Tenenbaums.

But what did Anderson’s delightful protagonists Anthony and Dignan have in common with the joyless solipsism of Holden Caulfield, patron saint of misfits and assassins, anyway? It was an allusion in name only. Here’s a spoiler-free synopsis for those fortunate to be able to take Mr. Anderson’s Wild Ride for the first time. The movie opens with Anthony (Luke Wilson) “escaping,” with the help of his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson), from a voluntary mental health clinic. As Anthony later tells his sister, “It wasn’t an insane asylum, Grace. I explained to you back then that it was for exhaustion.” Grace: “You haven’t worked a day in your life. How could you be exhausted?” A bit close to home for a guy who had literally worked a day in his life, but that did nothing if not draw me in further.

Dignan presents Anthony with a “75-Year Plan” toward becoming master criminals, suburban Goldfingers woefully short on diabolical schemes. After recruiting a driver, Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave), they pull off a minor theft and go on the lam. “On the run from Johnny Law,” Dignan says portentously. “Ain’t no trip to Cleveland.” This kind of dialogue, always in Dignan’s mouth, is Bottle Rocket’s real spark, and crime lit lovers will think of Sam Spade’s line in The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” Once you’ve seen Bottle Rocket a few times, it takes incredible self-control not to tell your pals to “rendezvous at the checkpoint” whenever you’re meeting up for beers.

It isn’t Anthony’s love affair with a Paraguayan housekeeper but the gang’s Big Heist at the behest of master criminal Mr. Henry (James Caan) that is Bottle Rocket’s emotional centerpiece. It’s the culmination of a will to escape the pull of boredom at all costs. Earlier, explaining his nervous breakdown, Anthony delivers one of the movie’s most quotable lines: “One morning, over at Elizabeth’s beach house, she asked me if I’d rather go water-skiing or lay out. And I realized that not only did I not want to answer that question, but I never wanted to answer another water-sports question, or see any of these people again, for the rest of my life.” Necessitas non habet legem, and neither, if Anthony and Dignan’s examples are to be trusted, does boredom.

Thus does one of the film’s most minor character become it’s most illustrative one. I mean Bob Mapplethorpe’s sadistic older brother “Future Man” (Andrew Wilson), an avatar of popped-collar douchebaggery such as the world of martinis and Clams Casino has never known. His moniker must be an inside joke among the three brothers Wilson, but it’s suggestive in any case: This is what you run the risk of becoming if you lose your sense of adventure and of the sublimely ridiculous. Rushmore’s Magnus Buchan is a version of this character, someone who lacks the courage or imagination to be anything but a dull brute. Both get their comeuppance and their redemption; as Magnus tells Max Fischer, “I always wanted to be in one of your fuckin’ plays.”

So where did Anderson lose the plot? In the March 2000 issue of Esquire, Martin Scorcese called Dignan “an innocent,” though of course “not in the eyes of the law.” He doesn’t go so far as to say that this special kind of innocence exists only at the movies. Nobody could behave in real life as Anthony and Dignan do without being painfully aware of his protected status as a “dreamer,” which is to say, without being the polar opposite of a dreamer—a cynic.

Bottle Rocket seems to have taught Wes Anderson that there is a market for mannered whimsy, an audience that wants the blueprints for Dignan’s sweet cluelessness, so it can be told, “I could never stay mad at you.” Anderson’s imagination, once working full-bore against boredom, now struggles to fill an insatiable demand for emotional pornography. The most painful thing about Criterion’s new Bottle Rocket is that it includes the black-and-white short on which the movie is based—thirteen minutes that show, like fellow Austinite Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker, what kind of entertainment can be made out of the right kind of boredom.