Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Max Fischer is a prodigy, for he is able to solve an equation that left his geometry teacher’s mentor utterly stumped. As promised, he never has to crack open a textbook for the rest of his tenure at Rushmore Academy – or so he believes. Unfortunately for him, reality comes knocking at the door, waking him up from his dream. In reality, Max Fischer is an eccentric 15-year-old scholarship student. He’s quite the paradoxical individual, for he participates in an astounding number of extracurricular activities, yet Dr. Guggenheim, the school’s headmaster, considers him the school’s worst student; his grades do nothing to assuage this assessment.  At one school assembly, Max meets the disillusioned Herman Blume, and the two of them strike up an unlikely friendship. Meanwhile, Max develops an obsession with Rosemary Cross, a widowed teacher who has recently arrived at the school. The next few months will stretch both relationships to their absolute limits.

Though Wes Anderson’s debut film, Bottle Rocket, was generally well-received, Rushmore is said to have truly launched his career. It also placed Jason Schwartzman, the actor depicting eccentric Max Fischer, on the map. The cast directors are said to have considered 1,800 different teenagers from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom before finding Mr. Schwartzman. The cult-favorite director finally began hitting his stride, providing cinephiles with one of the most beloved films of the nineties.

The script was written by both Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. From the beginning, they wrote the role with Bill Murray in mind, but expressed doubt that they could get the script to him. Luckily for them, Murray’s agent, a fan of Bottle Rocket, urged him to read the script. To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Murray liked it so much that he agreed to work for scale, which the director estimated to be $9,000. Thus began a collaborative effort between Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray that would span many releases to come.

What stuck out to me about Rushmore is its tone. Mr. Anderson, as early as his second film, had an exceptionally quirky style that seemed to lend a surreal touch to otherwise mundane situations. This is especially noticeable in how Max has no qualms about anything he does. If he wants to build an aquarium, it will be made – consequences be damned. When Rosemary brings a date to his production of Serpico, he makes no effort hiding his distaste for the man. When he feels slighted by somebody, he will take revenge – no matter how much of a bad way he puts himself in as a result.

Max is an interesting character because when you sum him up on paper, he appears to be a rather blatant example of a Mary Sue – an impossibly perfect self-insert. He is a multitalented individual, being a stellar playwright, expert fencer, and yellow belt in Kung Fu. At the same time, he’s shown to be a deeply flawed individual, and while many films depicting a character such as Max would brush his transgressions aside, he himself regularly faces serious consequences for them. Indeed, every single bad thing that occurs to him over the course of the film from getting expelled from Rushmore to being arrested for a not-so-harmless prank is entirely his fault.

Olivia Williams as Rosemary Cross is excellent as well. She is a kindhearted person who can and does draw the line when Max inevitably pushes her too far. You can sympathize with her frustration, having to constantly rebuff somebody who is clearly not operating on her, or anyone else’s, plane of reality.

Then, of course, there’s Bill Murray as the despondent Herman Blume. Mr. Murray has always excelled at playing that certain long faced character, and Herman embodies the architype. You get a sense of his disillusionment whenever he deals with his unruly sons, openly wondering how they turned out the way they did. It is very interesting seeing his and Max’s friendship progress throughout the film, and we’re shown all the highs and lows.

So while the individual performances are great, I have to comment that they don’t quite form something greater than the sum of their parts. Part of the reason the cast directors had to go through many teenagers before settling on Jason Schwartzman is because Mr. Anderson was looking for a very particular person. He needed someone who, in his own words, “could retain audience loyalty despite doing all the crummy things Max had to do”. In fact, their difficulties finding the right actor nearly sounded the production’s death knell.

While Jason Schwartzman certainly lent a charming quality to Max, it doesn’t change the fact that his character is rather detestable. He tells Herman’s wife that her husband is having an affair, which is later revealed to be untrue. He also sees fit to turn a large number of bees loose in Herman’s hotel room as the latter is being sued for divorce. This results in an escalating prank war in which Herman gets revenge by crushing Max’s bicycle. Unfortunately for him, Max feels an acceptable recourse is to cut the brakes of Herman’s car. That he didn’t spend multiple decades in prison is a miracle – albeit one provided by the scriptwriters.

While Max is a far cry from the worst lead character in fiction, I found I couldn’t root for him given his rather egregious transgressions. It really says something that pretending to be wounded so he could get Rosemary to pay attention to him is arguably his least boorish action. It really stretches the suspension of disbelief when they remain friends at the end – even in light of the film’s tone. I can appreciate a flawed protagonist when it’s done well. They can, and often are, endearing because give the audience something to which they can relate. As it stands, I highly doubt someone could relate to somebody who cuts their friend’s brakes. If they did, their friends would do well not to ever park outside.

When trying to pinpoint Wes Anderson’s magnum opus, Rushmore is a popular choice. To some degree I can understand that consensus. It was apparent that he had developed his distinct, quirky style as early as his sophomore effort, and the film has certainly had ample time to establish its legacy. However, I would argue that Rushmore revels a little too much in the quirkiness of its characters for its own good. Speaking retrospectively, I have little doubt that it was a product of somebody who had quite a bit of style out of the gate, but Mr. Anderson would need a few more tries before he could successfully use it to convey interesting stories. I can also respect someone wishing to explore the flaws of their characters, but if it takes roughly 1,800 tries to find someone who could make an unlikable lead watchable, that speaks more to the actor’s or actress’s charisma than the character’s charm. If you’re exploring his filmography for the first time, Rushmore wouldn’t be a bad one to start with, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s an unpolished effort.

Final Score: 6/10

5 thoughts on “Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

    • That would be a fair guess, though if he is picky about scripts, that wouldn’t explain Space Jam (Garfield was purportedly the result of a misunderstanding). Either way, it’s a good thing he saw something in this script because it meant a long-term collaboration with Wes Anderson.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is one of my favorite movies of all time and probably my favorite Anderson movie. You can practically see him discovering his signature style, before it solidifies and IMO stifles him later on.

    Mainly, I think it came out at a time when you really never saw offbeat movies like this, at least in mainstream. The tone, the timing, the eccentricities really blew me away.

    I read Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the movie) talk about a water theme present throughout the movie which was really fascinating to me. Max’s last name is Fischer (fisher), he tries to build an aquarium, Rosemary’s husband dies by drowning, the book that connects them is by Jacques Cousteau, and one of my favorites: when Herman cannonballs into the pool and curls up like a fetus underwater with a boy swimming around like a sperm. Once you look, you can find a ton of examples. It’s never explicitly explained or overtly connected to the story, but I recall it being one of the first times I looked at a film with a analytical artistic eye.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rushmore certainly seems to be a popular pick for his magnum opus. Personally, I feel he was able to use the style more effectively in the 2010s with The Grand Budapest Hotel being one of my favorite films from this decade.

      It’s possible that, being used to his style, I just saw Rushmore as another one of his films, but I still have to say the protagonist didn’t really click with me. As it stands, I think Rushmore is merely kind of neat.

      I did notice that water theme throughout the film myself now that you mention it. I think the first film I truly analyzed with an analytical, artistic eye was District 9. Granted, it was a negative review, but I think it helped me develop my taste in art.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really liked Grand Budapest Hotel as well, and thought it was the one where he stretched the most. It felt like he was too settled in to his writing and visuals style for years and this was a refreshing shake up.

        I don’t think you’re really meant to like Max. Maybe he was a prototypical anti-hero that became so prominent in later films/tv. But I agree the film’s light tone downplays some of the awful things he winds up doing.

        Liked by 1 person

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