Wes Anderson carves a masterful Rushmore
By Peter Keough
FEBRUARY 8, 1999: 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 its absurdity.
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 to leave.
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 school looms.
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.
Touring RushmoreThey've been spending a lot of time on a bus recently, and they look it. Haggard and a little stressed out, Wes Anderson, co-writer and director of Rushmore, and Jason Schwartzman, his 19-year-old star, have been hitting the road for the past week promoting their movie. It's a nice bus, to be sure, painted yellow to resemble the school variety, but the only connection to the movie is the name painted on the side, and the two have the air of those who recognize that what might have seemed a good idea in theory has not proved to be so a thousand miles or so later.
"No, there's no school bus in the movie," acknowledges Anderson.
"He doesn't fly," explains Schwartzman.
So much for the significance of the bus. The film's title, however, is another thing. Bottle Rocket, Anderson's first feature, was a low-budget shaggy-dog story, fanciful ephemera as befits the namesake pyrotechnic. Rushmore, the name of the private school in which Schwartzman's character Max Fischer seeks love, success, and a passing grade, suggests something more monolithic, enduring -- monumental.
Anderson agrees. "When we [he and co-writer Owen Wilson, who collaborated on Bottle Rocket] were trying to think of the title, we wanted something really American. It was so much the iconic American thing. That's why eventually we came up with Rushmore. The character has that pioneer spirit -- ingenuity and resilience."
And loss and disappointment and depression. Maybe it's all the driving, but the mood today seems dark.
"In my opinion," agrees Anderson, "Schwartzy seems a little fruity right now."
"Fruity! Why am I fruity?"
"I don't know. You seem like you're getting down or something."
"No, I'm just looking at the floor."
Schwartzman's objections notwithstanding, and despite the film's genuine hilarity and high spirits, Rushmore does convey a pervasive wistfulness.
"In an early version, Max tried to commit suicide," Anderson agrees. "There's definitely sadness through the whole thing. It got sadder the more we worked on it."
Schwartzman responded to that sadness. Like Max, he's lost a parent -- his father (his mother is the actress Talia Shire) died when he was 14.
"Four years ago. It's tough, and that was one thing that I could really relate to with Max. When you lose a parent at an early age, it can change the way you do things, and the reasons why. Max lost his mom when he was real young. I think that's why he's so motivated. Maybe he's trying to re-create some sort of family."
Meanwhile, for this temporary family on tour, the high points have included Jason's stint on Letterman a week ago Friday and, in keeping with the funereal theme, a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial.
"We tried to look up the name Max Fischer," says Anderson. "But there was no Max Fischer who died in Vietnam. There was an Edward S. Fischer, so we found him. Then we ran up to the Lincoln Memorial and saw Lincoln."
"Had our moment," says Schwartzman.
"We had our private moment. And here was a moment earlier today when we were walking down the street in the snow. We were so exhausted, tired, and confused, and we had a moment of looking at each other thinking, 'What are we doing? Where are we?' We had spent the entire night on the road, and we didn't know."
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