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My friends, I come to you a changed man. Those who read my column last week will know that I didn't think much of Shanghai Noon with Jackie Chan's diminishing physical yowza backed by a truly cornball script that included Owen Wilson. Before I was shanghaied, my only knowledge of Mr. Wilson was that he'd had a TV soap stint (is this true?) and that he used Sonya Dakar Anti-Acne Skin Cleaner. Now, I've seen a genius at work.
Bottle Rocket is a film about three losers who wish to be criminals. It's not so much that they're bad guys. They're just without direction and subject to the fantasies of the charismatic Dignan, played by Owen C. Luke Wilson plays Anthony, a down-to-earth young man who has let himself out of voluntary therapy feeling open to the world and ready for anything. He returns to his hometown to find old pal Dignan hatching a life-long scheme for the two of them to be wealthy thieves. They practice a heist and it goes only so well.
It becomes clear right away that Dignan is not present with reality. He is a grown kid who loves to hatch plots and shoot off firecrackers. With no real understanding of human interaction beyond television-and-movie-style exchanges, he comes off as a liar and a flake, but really, his entire life revolves around action hero daydreams. Anthony Adams, fresh out of his voluntary sanitarium stay, goes along with Dignan not only because Anthony has no clear path, but also because he is totally open to whatever life presents. Bob Mapplethorpe, played by Bob Musgrave, is the richie suburbanite loser who gets to be the getaway driver because he's the only one who owns a car.
Together, they are a formidable team: a danger to themselves and others. Between Dignan's Hollywood gangster delusions and Bob's constant chickening out, this gang's escapades are laughable, boyish, and only ever so mildly dangerous: like sparklers. Nevertheless, they pull a modest heist and hit the highway until things cool down. Dignan is thrilled to be living the life.
But while they're on the lam, staying at a roadside motel, Anthony falls in love with one of the staff. Inez, played by Lumi Cavazos, is a lovely, lithe, and down-to-earth young woman, really a perfect match for Anthony in spite of their language barrier. It seems love and first sight. Anthony is so earnest with his attraction that Inez adopts his openness, and after spending her days cleaning rooms while listening to Anthony ramble on in a language she doesn't know, she falls in love with him. With a direction in his life, Anthony no longer needs Dignan's schemes to escape suburban ennui.
Anthony's character revolves around simplicity. He doesn't actively tear himself away from his upper-class suburban upbringing (as Bob Mapplethorpe tries to do by dabbling badly in gangster life). Instead, Anthony simply lets life speak to him. The attractive woman he meets has nothing in common with him on the surface, but her own simplicity and physical attractiveness make her the ideal woman for Anthony. He doesn't want the sorority sister who greets him early in the movie. Nor does he really want a life of crime.
But the real character study in Bottle Rocket is Dignan. Anthony goes along with him because Dignan is incredibly charismatic as the swashbuckling boy. Bob and his rich, even brattier, older brother, called "Future Man," are foils to Dignan who has grown up poorer. The tragic aspect of this class difference is that Dignan, despite his complete separation from the world of wealth, measures himself on the same scale as the Mapplethorpes. Dignan embodies a subtle yet totally pervasive aspect of US culture: we all seem to share role models who are completely different than we are. As steeped in the cliches of television and film as we are, we can't help but measure our wealth against television portrayals of our demographic peers or our beauty against the people we see on the big and small screens. So whereas Anthony sees Future Man as a hateful preppy snob, Dignan can't help but see him, in spite of his nastiness, as a successful, well-dressed playboy-even though Future Man continually and brutally insults Dignan and beats his own brother Bob.
Dignan's recourse--his combination life of crime and retreat into fantasy--is understandable in this context. To feel rich, exciting, and alluring without the inherited opulence of the Mapplethorpe's, he sees crime as the best way to get rich quick while living an exciting life above the law.
Though at first Dignan begins to read as a one-dimensional character, your average fun-loving ne'er-do-well, we soon get a sense that his being is much deeper, broadened by the magical way he brings people into his schemes. His charisma is overwhelming enough to offset his obvious mental instability, and with a few words, delivered as though in Dolby, he can engage his friends, and more significantly, the viewer. The fact that enough other characters malign the pup only causes the viewer to sympathize with him more.
Without going too deeply into the story, which you must see for yourself, I will say that this is a subtle, sociological work, a zeitgeist film that catches much more than mere hip-dom. I like the kind of movie that doesn't tell me how to feel. There are no tears jerked, but when I get up from the comfy couch to press rewind, feeling satisfied, but not completely satisfied, entertained, yet a little confused, then I suspect I've seen something meaty. And when a film remains vivid over time, never yielding its answers, but occasionally coloring an experience in my real life, then I know I have seen a classic. Bottle Rocket is a classic, folks.