Deja Viewing: If You’re Excited for ‘Pain & Gain,’ Then Also Consider Firing Up ‘Bottle Rocket’

Brent Simon
Movie Talk

An unapologetically bawdy blast of florid, drugged-out kidnapping, violence and steroid-addled dark comedy, the bizarre true crime tale "Pain & Gain," Michael Bay's first non-"Transformers" flick since 2005, nudged out holdover "Oblivion" at the top of the box office this weekend, pulling in just over $20 million. It's part of the caffeinated wing of the "Idiots Behaving Criminally" subgenre, reminiscent in fits and starts of colorful movies like "Savages," "Domino," "Wild Things," "True Romance" and "Very Bad Things."

A somewhat smaller profile yet no less genuine antecedent highly worth checking out, however, is 1996's "Bottle Rocket." The film, which not only served as the debut of director Wes Anderson, but also the first screen appearances of Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson, the latter of whom penned the script along with Anderson, landed with something of a thud at the box office. Distributor Columbia Pictures never figured out quite how to market it, and it grossed only a little over $500,000 in an abortive platform release. Influential critics and other filmmakers sparked to its rare combination of energy and deadpan wit, however; it found a home on college campuses in A/V clubs and student union programming, and Martin Scorsese later called it one of his favorite movies of the 1990s.

Interesting, then, that while "Pain & Gain" unfolds in Miami, amidst pastels and much oiled-up flesh, and "Bottle Rocket" in dusty, small town Texas, both films are set in the '90s. In fact, while the former film is based on a series of 1999 Miami New Times articles, the warped events described take place largely in 1994, and easily could have helped form the spine of inspiration for the fictional "Bottle Rocket."

In "Pain & Gain," Mark Wahlberg's macho character, a charismatic personal trainer and bodybuilder hungry for the finer material things in life, hatches a plan to kidnap and rob a client of everything - his money, his house and his sandwich shop business. To do so, he recruits two friends. They proceed, and things go sideways.

In "Bottle Rocket," meanwhile, charismatic Dignan (Owen Wilson) has… well, a 75-year plan, actually. (He's nothing if not confident.) It starts with "rescuing" Anthony (Luke Wilson) from a voluntary psychiatric ward, and then recruiting another friend, Bob (Robert Musgrave), mainly because he meets the prerequisite of having a car. The next part of the plan is to pull off several heists, in order to win the favor of a local hood, Mr. Henry (James Caan). Hijinks ensue.

Both movies are, in their own distinct ways, portraits of the dangerous cocktail of dimwitted "himbo" ambition and injudicious scheming. Director Bay, though, displays an uncoordinated comedic feel, while Anderson - before much of his trademark aesthetic had, for better or worse, ossified into achingly specific production design - has a deft touch with the absurdity coursing through his movie.

If male adolescence and indeed its extension into twentysomethinghood is a disorienting combination of bravado and insecurity, "Bottle Rocket" illustrates, in an amusingly idiosyncratic way, the deep feeling and fraternity attached to it all. It makes for a rather delightful throwback, in which criminal activity on the screen doesn't concern itself with imparting a sense of pulverizing menace. In the past five years, "Bottle Rocket" would even receive, in what remains the best way to view the movie, the Criterion treatment on DVD and Blu-ray - a hallmark of quality granted to few contemporary films.

Watch the trailer for 'Pain & Gain':