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Desultory in Dallas BY STEVEN G. KELLIVIANI BOTTLE ROCKET. Directed by Wes Anderson. EN ANTHONY ADAMS \(Luke \( younger sister Grace that he was hospitalized for exhaustion, the girl is puzzled. “You haven’t worked a day in your life,” she observes. “How could you be exhausted?” What ails middle-class Anthony and his twentysomething buddies is the world-weariness diagnosed by metaphysicians Goethe, Byron, Turgenev, Hemingway and, more recently, Richard Linklater. The latter’ s Slacker elevated aimlessness in Austin into cinematic art. The 1991 film was a whimsical study in youthful entropy, among people who live at the margins of a Texas university and American enterprise. Wes Anderson and Owen C. Wilson, co-writers of Bottle Rocket, met at The University of Texas at Dallas. They managed to secure sufficient resources to produce a thirteen-minute black-andwhite short. But, in a case of life imitating El Mariachi, someone with clout at Columbiathe Pic tures not the Universitytook a liking to the students’ novice work. They were able to remake it as a ninety-five-minute color feature and with the addition of a marketable actor, James Caan, in the cameo role of a wily master thief named Mr. Henry. Dallas and its outskirts remain the setting for the story and the location for the shooting. In less than five years, frugal debuts by Robert Rodriguez, Linldater, and Anderson have tarnished the image of big-spending Texans that it took a century of excess by cattle, oil and political barons to create. The blatant austerity of Bottle Rocket, whose title derives from the term for a cheap type of fireworks, is enough to make H. L. Hunt turn over in his mausoleum. The principal characters in Bottle Rocket are bona fide members of the slacking class. sponsible job, with a landscape maintenance firm called the Lawn Wranglers. But after he is fired, Didgnan turns to thievery the way Linklater’s slackers embrace JFK assassination conspiracy theoriesas a stay against entropy. Along with Anthony and a third friend, waggishly named Bob Mapplethorpe Steven Kellman is the Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, San Antonio. road and, after robbing a book store, the lam. In their inaugural heist, the Keystone crooks burglarize Anthony’s own house; the mission is perfectly executed, except that Anthony is piqued when Didgnan pilfers the earrings that the son gave his mother. Money is not their motive for felony. In fact, Bob, who lives in a luxurious house, drives the trio around in his family Mercedes and treats the confederates in crime to lunch at his parents’ country club. These feckless men are drifters more than grift6rs, bandits impelled by inertia more than avarice. Shortly after Didgnan steals a weathered convertible, its engine fails, and he abandons it by the side of the road. An aging Asian they recruit to crack a safe is utterly inept at the task. A road movie of male-bonding, Bottle Rocket is not espe cially inventive in conception, but its execution, by director Wes Anderson, is exuberantly droll. When cinematographer Robert Yeoman tracks the feckless escapades of Anthony and Didgnan across the vacant spaces of north Texas, his camera pivots in exquisite deadpan. In the movie’s opening sequence, Didgnan is intent on engineering Anthony’s escape from an Arizona sanitarium. Lacking the heart to inform his friend that this is a voluntary hospital, that he could if he chose walk blithely through. the ,front door, Anthony humors Didgnan by fleeing via bed sheets lowered from the window. Didgnan has outlined a seventy-year plan for both of them, and Anthony goes along with most of his schemes out of pity for the aching insecurity that he senses beneath his friend’s bossy bluster. It is an irony not lost on either characteror the audiencethat Didgnan’ s hold on sanity is more tenuous than that of the man he thinks he springs from a mental ward. Homoeroticism, camouflaged by a heterosexual romantic interest, is the invisible engine propelling the journey of many buddy movies. About a third of the way through Bottle Rocket, Anthony, Didgnan and Bob share a motel room, but Anthony becomes enamored of the chambermaid, a pretty Paraguayan immigrant named Inez \(Lumi Cavazos, who also starred in Like Neither speaks the other’s language \(“Take the time in school to learn a foreign language,” advises Anthony struggles to persuade Inez to join them on the road. Though she loves the goofy stranger, Inez cannot abandon her job to go off somewhere with a man she likens to papel; Anthony possesses all the substance of tissue paper. “She’s a serious person,” explains another motel worker, Rocky, to the profoundly frivolous interloper. “I love you,” says the translator, and indignant Didgnan attributes Inez’s passionate words to the male interpreter. Opening with a specious liberation, from a voluntary clinic, Bottle Rocket concludes with , the image of genuine incarceration: Wasco State Penitentiary. Itself an assertion of artistic independence from Hollywood, the film by Anderson and Wilson explores the illusions of freedom. Unlike the practical and penurious Inez, Anthony and Didgnan are open to everything, committed to nothing. Anthony’s surname, Adams, suggests a kind of radical innocence, one that remains untarnished despite his spree of malefactions. “You’re really complicated,” says a stranger to Anthony. His flat reply, “I try not to be,” is utterly devoid of guile. The plain terrain through which Anthony, Didgnan and Bob move lacks not only the density and bustle of contemporary urban life. It is also curiously deficient in fathers and mothers. Bob’s are conveniently off in Singapore while their twentysix-year-old heir and his overbearing older brother Jonathan appropriate theMapplethorpe estate. The only other evidence of parents is the jewelry pilfered from the bedroom of Anthony’s mother. The merry scoundrel Mr. Henry serves as surrogate father for the shiftless young men, until a stunning revelation of a kind of guile that dramatically distinguishes him from their affectless generation. Bottle Rocket is propelled by little more than whimsy, but the screenplay is clever enough to sustain a viewer’s wonder. Like the awestruck workers at the Hinckley Cold Storage plant against which Didgnan stages a bungled heist, we are astounded by the project’s ungainly grace. For a followup to Bottle Rocket this team of north Texas filmmakers will need stronger fuel than fancy. But, as the poet Shelley proved, much can be owed to a lark. Itself an assertion of artistic independence from Hollywood, the film by Anderson and Wilson explores the illusions of freedom. 22 MARCH 8, 1996