Wes Anderson carves a masterful Rushmore
by Peter Keough
RUSHMORE. Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. With
Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Brian Cox, Seymour Cassel,
Mason Gamble, Sara Tanaka, Stephen McCole, and Luke Wilson. A Touchstone
Pictures release. At the Showcase Cinemas (Route 6 and Warwick only).
Adolescence, for better and worse, defines popular culture
these days, from the hit movie Varsity Blues to the junior-high
petulance and concupiscence of the United States Congress. In the process, with
the emphasis on hormones, pseudo-hipness, bogus nihilism, and bodily functions,
all of the charm of that evanescent, inescapable state of mind has been lost,
as well as the magic, the optimism, and the spontaneity. In his brilliant new
Rushmore, Wes Anderson goes a long way to restoring all that. It's
innocent (mostly -- the deviations are crucial, never gratuitous) and
funny -- in its way as funny as There's Something About Mary.
Smugness and smarminess never taint its irony; compassion and exuberance stir
The spirit of Rushmore, the genial private academy of the title, is embodied
in its hero, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, whose film debut is comparable in
many ways to that of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). His gravely
monumental face peaking in a prominent, pasteboard-looking nose surmounted by
Harold Lloyd-like glasses, he's driven by simple, irreconcilable desires: he
wants to be loved; he wants to succeed; and he wants to remain forever at his
beloved school. On the basis of a play he wrote about Watergate at age seven,
his mother got him a scholarship to go to Rushmore. Now 15, with his mother
dead, and his loving dad (Seymour Cassel, another great face and performance)
an embarrassment given the tony crowd Max is hanging around with, he sees
Rushmore as his alma mater in the literal sense. It's the womb he doesn't want
That may explain why he's such a lousy student. An opening fantasy parodying
Good Will Hunting notwithstanding, he's failing every course. In
extracurriculars, though, he's outstanding -- in a hilarious montage of
yearbook-like snapshots, he's shown as active in every group from the
Bombardment Society to the Max Fischer Players, his personal drama corps. But
Dean Guggenheim (Brian Cox, one of the few excellent supporting actors
underused) has had enough. Max faces "sudden-death probation" -- one more
failure and he's across the street, where the grim Grover Cleveland public high
A couple of new inspirations spark Max's resourcefulness. Herman Blume (Bill
Murray, establishing himself once and for all as Hollywood's consummate comic
actor), local steel magnate and school benefactor, delivers an address to the
students in which he exhorts the poorer ones to "take dead aim at the rich
boys . . . and take them down." Max is the only one to applaud.
A bond is formed.
Blume's Murrayish, madcap anarchy is toned down and ignited by Max's second
inspiration. She's Miss Cross (a sweetly sad, blushing Olivia Williams), a
young widow. Taking out a book on undersea exploration from the school library,
Max notes a quote from Jacques Cousteau inscribed in the margin. He tracks the
previous lender down and finds the comely British import reading Kidnapped
to her first-grade Rushmore class. Ineptly, endearingly, obsessively, Max
stalks Miss Cross, engaging her in a friendly courtship that at first bemuses,
then disturbs her.
The collision of these three reveals the depths of their decency and despair.
Max's hopeless love for the older woman bares the maternal void his ambition
and school loyalty will never fill. Miss Cross cannot get over the death of her
husband. And Herman, a Vietnam vet with a failing marriage and a pair of
loutish twins, will not recover his youth by palling around with Max or even
stealing his "girl." "I have been feeling a little bit lonely lately," Max
admits, two cigarettes lit at the same time, his face a quagmire of despondency
and disbelief, and it's a reminder that, despite its ebullience, Rushmore
is a movie about melancholia.
As in Shakespeare in Love, stings and arrows are merely the stuff of
art, and the Max Fischer Players are up to the task. More so than the Bardic
film, though, the leap from story to stage in Rushmore is jolting and
mercurial. As with Anderson's first film, Bottle Rocket, some will find
the narrative of Rushmore incoherent and erratic. The criticism may have
been fair for the previous film, but the capriciousness of Rushmore is
like that of a dream or an epiphany.
Its logic is reflected in Anderson's blithe, rigorous layering of each frame
in a mise-en-scène reminiscent of Jean Renoir and the Naked Gun
people (you'll have to see this film at least twice to get all the gags and
details), and in its off-kilter '60s soundtrack and playful, theatrical
self-reflexivity. As with the knot trick pulled off by little Indian man in the
background of Rushmore's dénouement, it's unclear how he pulls it
off, or why, but it works.