Review – Rushmore (1998)

by Armando Vanegas

With Bottle Rocket being a critical hit, it only made sense for another studio like Touchstone Pictures to come calling and give Wes Anderson the skills to become the filmmaker that he is today. Due to its larger budget and higher profile, it’s no doubt that Rushmore is truly a Wes Anderson movie. I remember it being the movie that introduced me to Wes Anderson. Because of his unique style, no movie was like it at the time to me. Not to mention that it stood out from many other high school movies of its time such as Can’t Hardly Wait or American Pie. He knows how to use his style to create an immersive world that’s so meticulously detailed that he’s able to flesh out the characters and the story in a more convenient and subtle way than other filmmakers would probably do. Watching it now was somewhat unexpected. While I don’t think I can tout it as the masterpiece I once did, it was still an entertaining movie.

Jason Schwartzman is Max Fischer, an entitled young private school student from Rushmore Academy who dedicates his love for his school by joining every extracurricular activity they have. When he gets in over his head, he ends up being expelled and being forced to go to a public school. In the meantime, he finds some new friends to help him through it and fall in love, causing complications in some of his relationships. Max is interesting because even if we don’t identify with him, we can understand where he’s coming from. Writing main characters has always been one of Anderson’s strengths as he knows how to make them fascinating to watch. I know I used to convince myself that I found him relatable and I guess there’s something in him that everyone connects to. That’s what a lot of the best high school movies do well. The private school aspect was an interesting one as it’s not one we see a lot in these kinds of movies. Anderson really makes Max’s world feel like something that would be a dream to be in. It also didn’t hurt that it was shot in Houston by a director from Houston. It convinced me that if someone like Wes Anderson can make this stylish of a movie, then anything is possible. The settings are always so perfectly put together that it tells its own story. There’s also that nice soundtrack playing in the background. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography is always on point. Mark Mothersbaugh’s whimsical score adds a lot to the proceedings. This is a place that I wanted to live in. As a young black kid who grew up with mostly black kids in his public school, this was such a fascinating new side of my city to me. I get to see white kids in a school where they clearly had the resources to do play adaptations of Serpico or have an assistant to do your bidding with no questions asked. I don’t know why I would need these things, but the movie makes it look cool.

Schwartzman makes it plausible because he exudes a lot of confidence into the role. He’s excellent in the role and it’s incredible how this was his acting debut because he already had the presence. He’s got the right amount of being punchable that I want in my kid genius. The movie is smart to subvert that by making him mediocre at some of the things he does. Take the plays that he writes, for example. The climactic Vietnam play is so convoluted that you have to wonder who thought all those elements are supposed to fit together. They seem to have a “so bad, it’s good” feel to them but with a pretentious air that screams, “Look at how brilliant and subversive I am!” It’s so subtle that it’s easy to miss it. The movie is good at making him a pathetic character when we realize how much he’s intent on hiding things about his personal life outside of Rushmore to keep up his facade of being this wunderkind. You can’t totally put all this on him though because he’s a kid and he’s just doing what kids do at the end of the day.

I love his relationship with industrialist Herman Blume, played by Bill Murray. This always felt like the most ideal male friendship to me because I was more interested in talking to adults than to people my own age as a kid. Coming from different backgrounds doesn’t keep them from seeing each other as equals. They’re not emotionally available but they don’t need to be. They showed their love for each other with actions. They talk the way guys talk to each other with more warmness than movies usually show. It feels natural despite their vastly different backgrounds. The fact that they’re so chummy with each other and how the movie approaches it is entertaining on its own. These are two people that have some kind of tragedy and pain, using these superficial things around them in order to keep themselves occupied. It’s not enough though and the fact that they admire each other’s approach to life and the work they do has always been compelling to me. The moments they have together is the only time they feel free to be themselves. I appreciate that Murray’s capable of being sad because I had never seen him do that at this point. His sadness compels me. He’s very restrained compared to his earliest and more iconic comedic roles, but he fits the role like a glove. He really gets what Anderson is doing. Anderson gets to what makes him tick in a way very few directors seemed to at the time. We never see his home life but just meeting him makes you feel bad for him. From the first scene, you know he’s not the typical rich guy as he seems to be filled with so much pain that it’s hard to contain. It’s only when he’s around Max that he seems relatively upbeat as he brings out the best in him. There’s something weirdly touching about the Vietnam play and his reaction to it that informs how strong their relationship really is.

Miss Cross is probably the weakest character in the film. She’s not the most compelling character, but she makes sense in relation to Max and Herman’s character arcs. It’s just that she doesn’t have much to do. Her husband and she likes the sea. That’s it. Still, Olivia Williams is wonderful in the role though and she makes her character better defined than it probably already was. I can see why Max and Herman would fight for her affections even if it’s not that compelling to see who would win her affections. The way that the two men resort to acting like kids is more interesting than wondering how this will end. Grown people acting like kids has always been another one of Anderson’s strengths. But it was refreshing to have like Miss Cross as someone content with their life even with the tragedy they went through in contrast to Max and Herman.

Wes Anderson was really on a roll here. From here on out, it’s clear that he knows how to create a world. Even the look of the movie makes it feel immersive. In many ways, this is a major improvement over Bottle Rocket. I didn’t connect with it as much as I did as a kid, but it’s still a great time as a whole. It still contains a lot of memorable moments that make this a movie I’ll likely watch yet again. The understated dry humor that has made up most of his movies is better refined here. Like the best comedies, there’s a lot of great lines that you pick up on subsequent viewings. The characters are interesting, especially Max and Herman. The movie achieves a childlike feel that’s a good balance to the more melancholy moments. It’s a movie that will stay with you if you’re willing to get on its wavelength and appreciate what it’s trying to do.

I’ll give Rushmore a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!

 

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