It’s hard to go to the movies these days without seeing tough guys bungling a job, and director Wes Anderson isn’t peddling much of a variation: His Bottle Rocket is about not-so-tough guys bungling a job. Still, Anderson and his co-scripter, Owen C. Wilson (who also stars in the film), have a fresh comic touch that’s very appealing. It’s not quite enough to sustain this debut feature, but it still provides an exceptional number of effervescent moments.

Though predictable in outline, Rocket is full of unexpected details; Anderson and Wilson have a gift for the winning little twist. To avoid spoiling too many of those, I’ll attempt to summarize judiciously: Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen C. Wilson) are aimless young men yet to settle on any career plan. The exuberantly self-absorbed Dignan thinks he’s got one, though: crime. Inspired by lawn-service operator Mr. Henry (James Caan), who Dignan insists is a master thief, he proposes a robbery. Anthony lackadaisically accepts the plan, but insists that they recruit his pal Bob (Robert Musgrave) as the getaway driver. Even more hapless than Anthony, Bob still lives at home and in terror of his older brother.

It’s no crime of the century, but the trio’s first caper is something of a success. Announcing that they’re “on the lam,” Dignan leads his confederates to a dumpy motel in an obscure desert location. (The film’s title comes from the fireworks they buy along the way.) At their hideaway, Anthony finally discovers something that captures his imagination: a Spanish-speaking chambermaid, Inez (Like Water for Chocolate star Lumi Cavazos). He romances her with Spanglish and hand signals while Dignan fumes, unable to leave because Bob has taken off with the car. After Anthony fails to connect permanently with the more pragmatic Inez, he and Dignan leave the motel. They soon split, however, and Anthony and Bob decide to go straight.

It’s not long before the indefatigable Dignan reappears with a yellow jumpsuit and a more ambitious plan. This time he’s selected a bigger target, and has recruited the practical-joking Mr. Henry as a consultant. This heist, of course, is going to be even less successful than their first. The only person who seems to care, though, is Dignan. Anthony can only think of Inez, while Bob (rightly) fears disaster.

The filmmakers’ invention has already begun to flag by this point, and the failed robbery disintegrates fairly routinely; the original Rocket was a no-budget 13-minute short, and this expanded version isn’t up to the demands of full-length featuredom. But Anderson and Wilson still have a few surprises, as well as the character of Dignan, a commandingly watchable creep. An Eddie Haskell type in a world without parents, Dignan is painfully earnest about his planned life of crime; he has the ambitions of Al Capone and the demeanor of a senior-class president planning a car wash. (When he discovers that Anthony has given away the loot from their first robbery, he can only rage, “That’s inappropriate!”)

Such off-center exclamations are not restricted to the dialogue. Anderson packs both the dialogue and the soundtrack with agreeably startling outbursts, favoring such edgy yet melodious songs as Love’s “Seven and Seven Is” and the Proclaimers’ “Over and Done With.” (In a score drawn almost entirely from 1967, the latter song is the most contemporary touch.) These songs are an integral part of the film’s rhythm, and rhythm is Rocket’s principal strength: The key to the dialogue’s distinguishing charm is often not what or how, but when.

Anderson and Owen Wilson met while students at University of Texas, which is of course Slacker country. Anthony lives his life at full slack: He’s lectured about his irresponsibility by his grade-school-age sister, and when told by an admiring young woman that he’s “really complicated,” responds in all sincerity, “I try not to be.” It’s the wired Dignan, though, who gives meaning to the haphazard lives of his spacey pals. He’s the one who supplies purpose, however ill-advised. If Rocket’s (perhaps unintended) message is that young men and their friendships are empty and pathetic, it’s Dignan who provides a modicum of hope. Never mind the romantic obsession that energizes Anthony; Dignan demonstrates that the real salvation for unmotivated regular guys is lavish self-delusion. CP

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