The Young and the Shiftless

A bottle rocket is little more than a glorified firecracker on a stick. You point one upward and light it, but you can never be sure that it'll fly in the direction you want it to go. Sometimes bottle rockets just fizzle out. At best they sparkle, streak skyward, and pop. Unlike dynamite, they can't blow up anything. They do not erupt into a thousand glittering points of light that cascade gently to earth and make people ooh and ah in wonder, nor do they burst in midair with a concussive eardrum-splitting report.

Which is why the self-deprecating movie title Bottle Rocket is deceptive. Although small in scale and not designed to compete with big-budget Hollywood pyrotechnics, this droll, exuberant debut from a tightly knit group of ambitious twentysomething Texans defies the odds. Despite a first-time director and a cast of nobodies (with the exception of small supporting turns from James Caan and Like Water for Chocolate's Lumi Cavazos), it delivers more entertainment bang than nine out of ten of its flashier, more expensive counterparts.

Nobody expects much from a bottle rocket, nor, very likely, did anyone expect much from cowriter/director Wes Anderson and his friend, cowriter/star Owen C. Wilson. They met while both were students at the University of Texas. Neither had ever so much as apprenticed on a feature film before. Short on cash and experience but long on enthusiasm and dreams, they wrote the Bottle Rocket script and then enlisted Wilson's younger brother Luke and older sibling Andrew to act in what would become, owing to financial constraints, a thirteen-minute black-and-white short. But that short played at the Sundance Film Festival and ultimately convinced Hollywood producers Polly Platt and James L. Brooks (The War of the Roses, Say Anything, Broadcast News) to bankroll a full-color feature.

Bottle Rocket tells the story of three misfits A not unlike Anderson and the Wilsons A who, bound by friendship, loyalty, and the desire to do something with their lives, embark upon a petty crime spree. Tightly wound Dignan (Owen C. Wilson, loony and intense as Dennis Hopper), the most enterprising of the three, supplies the energy and chutzpah. He idolizes an eccentric but successful thief, Mr. Henry (James Caan), who rips off homes using his landscaping service -- the Lawn Rangers -- as a front. But Dignan has a penchant for screwing up everything he becomes involved with, and as the film opens, Mr. Henry has just fired him.

Anthony (Luke Wilson) is smarter and more levelheaded than Dignan, but he goes along with his best pal's half-baked schemes because he understands how badly Dignan wants to be a leader. Bob (Robert Musgrave), the black sheep of a well-to-do family that includes his sadistic older brother Futureman (Andrew Wilson), is the only member of the gang with a car. Individually or collectively, these three amigos pose about as much of a threat to society as, well, a bottle rocket. Forget The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight; these chronic underachievers are the Gang That Couldn't Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time. Call it Slacker meets Reservoir Dogs.

A potent combination of dry humor, quirky characterizations, and surprisingly strong acting from a fresh but inexperienced cast propel Bottle Rocket to altitudes far above the norm for ultra-low-budget independent films. The writing by Wilson and Anderson is spiky and unhinged. (Example: After successfully robbing a bookstore, Dignan announces, "Before we divide the loot, Bob gets the Spirit award.") At times Bottle Rocket feels like it's unraveling into an episodic collection of tongue-in-cheek riffs, but the center ultimately holds; it veers off in a few unexpected directions but somehow remains aloft. The misguided romantics on-screen may not be capable of realizing their dreams, but their real-life counterparts behind the cameras have succeeded in pulling off the filmmaking equivalent of the big heist: an assured, original, and endearing motion picture.

Joshua Melville's The Day is another debut. The picture, which chronicles the final 24 hours in the life of a fallen Seventies punk rock idol, marks a career shift into filmmaking by the Miami resident and former major-label record producer/mixer/engineer. Dedicated to the late jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius and punk-glam guitarist Johnny Thunders, Melville's gritty black-and-white composition follows the downward spiral of Jarred Fillmore, a singer/songwriter turned junkie whose fifteen minutes of fame expired fifteen years ago. Nowadays Jarred whiles away the time bumming change, making his ex-lover's life miserable, and ducking the loan shark to whom he owes twenty grand. As if all that isn't bad enough, someone has stolen the master tapes to the poor guy's current recording project, pretty much nixing any shot at a comeback Jarred might have had.

Owen Comaskey nails the strung-out character of Jarred in the lead role, and Melville's direction evokes the anonymity and squalor that have become the washed-up rocker's constant companions. Melville, who had a hand in just about every aspect of the film's making, captures some arresting visual imagery -- notably a few fuzzy, dreamlike New York cityscapes -- but he doesn't give us much reason to like Jarred or to care about his predicament. Comaskey tries to humanize Jarred by conveying some of his frustration and vulnerability, but Melville assumes we'll give a damn about his protagonist because nobody loves him. It's a serious miscalculation; in art as in life it is difficult to invest much emotion in someone who doesn't care about himself. Nor does the writer/director provide much of a plot. Jarred bounces around the East Village making a nuisance of himself until the very real threat of bodily harm from his knife-wielding loan shark sends the down-on-his-luck musician packing -- to Miami, final resting place for so many of the entertainment industry's has-beens.

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