Mope and glow

Anthony has spent the last few weeks in a mental hospital. Dignan, Anthony's best friend, wants to get him out, and has planned an elaborate escape: Anthony ties his bed sheets together, shimmies out the window to his pal waiting below, and together they make a daring, daylight break for freedom.

The irony is, Anthony (Luke Wilson) checked himself into the hospital voluntarily, for treatment of "exhaustion." There's no need for him to break out--the doctors are prepared to walk with him to the front door--but he climbs out the window anyway, because, he says, "It means a lot to Dignan." All things considered, you can't help but wonder if the right person was seeking psychiatric help.

So begins Bottle Rocket, a gloriously odd, quirky new comedy from a group of Dallas independent filmmakers. Although almost formless--sort of a comical version of The Usual Suspects containing a few recognizable conventions from standard heist films--Bottle Rocket is lively, clever, and surprisingly slick, but it also glows with a refreshingly upbeat spirit as the characters progress from aimless disillusionment to hopeful disillusionment.

The mechanism of their development is a series of robberies formulated by Dignan (Owen C. Wilson). He's done all the homework he needs to assure future success: He buys a gun and takes lessons shooting it; he recruits a getaway driver, Bob (Robert Musgrave); they practice their technique by looting their own homes (it apparently never occurs to them that it helps having keys that open the front door and knowing when mom is at work); and finally work their way up to a big target--a bookstore--before seeking the patronage of the reputed capo di tutti capi of the Dallas underworld, Mr. Henry (James Caan).

There's very little cash to be derived from robbing a bookstore, of course, and that fact is one of the many eccentricities that make Bottle Rocket so endearing. What the robberies represent to Dignan, Anthony, and Bob is something very different than mere profit. There's virtually no discussion of how much money they expect to make from this seedy enterprise. Instead, each has conceived of his life of crime as an act of friendship.

Bob sees the opportunity to be the wheel man as a sign of finally belonging to an identifiable group, even one as motley as this; his acceptance of the job is a gesture of gratitude more than a conscious dedication to thievery, and a means of escaping his status as the whipping boy of his older brother, Futureman (Andrew Wilson).

As much as Bob wants to be a follower, Dignan wants to be a leader and command respect. In crime he stumbles upon perhaps the one thing he knows he's more adept at than his friends. "Who's the leader of this gang?" he demands in one scene. "You are the leader," comes the sheepish reply. That's all Dignan has ever wanted to hear.

Mostly, though, the story is Anthony's. Anthony, who clearly has more leadership skills than Dignan, is the most reluctant of the would-be thieves, but since Anthony has no goals and doesn't know what he wants out of life, membership in a gang seems as reasonable a choice as any other. He admires Dignan's enthusiasm, misdirected as it may be, because it fills a void in his own world. Dignan's plots may be modest, but at least he carries them out on a grand scale. When Anthony finds a Mexican chambermaid named Inez (Lumi Cavazos) to replace his interest in the newest heist, he's presented with what might be called the crisis of Yoko Ono: Does he choose the girl or his friends?

Despite Bottle Rocket's seemingly easy-to-summarize plot, it's difficult to imagine someone sitting down and actually committing it to paper. The script is a gem of the modern picaresque teeming with inventive and unique details that elevate it beyond trite, self-important Gen X comedies like Reality Bites.

The screenplay, by Owen C. Wilson and director Wes Anderson, takes some wonderful chances that pay off. For example, unlike criminals who are usually violent in their instability, Anthony, Dignan, and Bob are paralyzed by indecision. When they rob the bookstore, Dignan says, "Here, put this piece of tape on your nose." "Why?" asks Anthony. "Exactly!" says Dignan. Later, when the manager chastises them for their rudeness, Dignan apologizes and starts calling the manager "sir." It's a terrific bit, one of many.

For twentysomethings with no professional acting, writing, or directing experience among them, the skill and assurance with which they have conceived and executed this freshman effort are impressive indeed. The dialogue has been perfected to the point where it seems spontaneous yet precisely timed; the characters speak in the deliberate but extemporaneous rhythms of David Mamet creations, greatly serving the film's idiosyncratic tempo.

The characters explode on screen as real people, fully developed yet with the air of human mystery rising from the extensive, unspoken details of their lives, including the shallow, pompous Futureman, whose peculiar name is never explained. Luke Wilson's sweet, comic appearance resembles the heartsick puppy that Anthony is, and Musgrave's portrayal of Bob's insecurity and desperation seems well-targeted, but the best performance comes from Owen Wilson. His perfectly pitched take on Dignan--part Jack Nicholson, part Dennis Hopper on a bender--is the pulsing energy of the movie, the hinge around which everything else becomes unhinged.

The central power of Bottle Rocket lies in the fact that it simply glows with optimism. By the end, the characters might seem to be worse off than when they started, but in fact each has gotten what he was seeking. What begins as moping self-pity evolves into self-respect and a realization of the road to each one's identity. Problems aren't solved for Dignan and Bob and Anthony, but at least they know what those problems are: Angst becomes hope, and an upbeat, joyous outlook provides a ray of light shining as a bright beacon, a guide out of the doldrums aimed at the glassy eyes of the Gloom Generation. Bottle Rocket turns the Gen X genre on its head: Suddenly, it's cool to want to do something with your life. What a concept.

Bottle Rocket. Columbia Pictures. Owen C. Wilson, Luke Wilson, Bob Musgrave, James Caan. Written by Owen C. Wilson and Wes Anderson. Directed by Wes Anderson. Opens February 23.

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