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Raising Heck

'Bottle Rocket' takes off on a crooked trajectory

By Richard von Busack

Quirky beyond belief, the dry comedy Bottle Rocket follows a crew of wannabe criminals on the road to a heist where they all get to wear jumpsuits, use smoke bombs and communicate on walkie-talkies. The crew--hopeless suburbanites with only a vague idea of how such things are done--hits a bookstore (the aggravated manager calls them punks, and the thieves apologize for angering the man, calling him "sir"). The usual suspects here are the self-mythologizing young loon Dignan (Owen C. Wilson), who warns us that if trouble breaks out, "You're going to see a different Dignan, a mean, sadistic, Dignan," even though we don't. Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave), apparently no relation to the noted photographer, is the wealthy but put-upon driver, drawn into the gang less for his ruthlessness than for his car keys. The hero, Anthony (Luke Wilson), is just out of a pleasant clinic after a minor breakdown, the long-term effects of which are a certain suggestible quality--he generally does what he's told. After the bookstore job, the three lam it out to a remote motel with the police in cold pursuit, but Anthony complicates things by falling for Inez (Lumi Cavazos, the lead in Like Water for Chocolate), a sweet-faced housekeeper at the place. Bob takes the car and leaves, and Dignan and Anthony are, at the halfway point in the movie, stuck without a ride and without a next step.

Bottle Rocket is a quicker and funnier version of Stranger Than Paradise, complete with a heroine who barely speaks English; the white-out of wintery Lake Erie in Jim Jarmusch's film is replaced in Bottle Rocket by similar vistas of the country-club side of East Texas--it's Texas as Baja Ohio. Wilson's ambitious Dignan, with his 75-year-plan in his spiral notebook, displays the mania of Dennis Hopper at his funniest, and Wilson, muttering like Mike Nesmith used to on the Monkees TV show, is all the more lovable for having fallen in love. (On his first glimpse of Inez, he stares as if gun-shot; the only thing he can do is tell her what wonderful posture she has. It's true; even barefoot, Cavazos walks like a dancer.)

The appearance of James Caan in the last third gives the comedy a point. Caan satirizes the new-wave crime boss--especially Richard Bohringer's supercool criminal in Diva--in the same way that the Wilsons satirize gangsta boys. Caan provides a link to the equally shaggy-dog crime comedies of the 1970s like Slither, and director Wes Anderson, with his pauses, digressions and fits, shows that he has seen those movies, too (although he's given them a visual shuffling to keep younger people hooked). It's hard not to like a movie with such cheerful aimlessness or that uses the great L.A. psychedelic band Love all over the soundtrack. Even the downbeat ending is strangely upbeat--you feel Anderson could follow the lives of the three scroungers for decades and still find something entertaining and hopeful to say about them.

Bottle Rocket (R; 95 min.), directed by Wes Anderson, written by Anderson and Owen C. Wilson, and starring Owen and Luke Wilson and James Caan, plays at the UA Pavilion Theatres in San Jose.

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