Wes Anderson’s films often seem to exist in hermetically sealed bubbles of wilful whimsy, with a measure of sangfroid and melancholia just beneath. One environment perfectly skewed to such an approach is that of our school days. Although you’ve never had school days like these. With Rushmore, the curtains open, as if in one of precocious protagonist Max Fischer’s many elaborate plays, on a heightened, absurd battle to uphold an alma mater standard that never really existed in the first place, staving off reality in a fantasy of control: “I guess you’ve just got to find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”
Max is played by Jason Schwartzman in a comically astute debut that calls to mind that of Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate (an iconic scene from that film is subtly mirrored later). He is Rushmore Academy’s least gifted but most passionately hands on student, captain of everything from the fencing team, through to a model United Nations, complete with national costume headgear (just one of many clubs in an opening montage, scored to Makin’ Time, by The Creation – the period pop soundtrack is perfectly judged) . An overachiever like Benjamin Braddock with one all – important exception – good grades.
We also see Max solving “probably the hardest geometry equation in the world”, taking over from his teacher at the blackboard – in his dreams. His principal, Dr Guggenheim (a weary Brian Cox) warns the scholarship student his continuing poor grades will see him kicked out: “We’re putting you on what we call sudden death academic probation.” Max doesn’t see the fact that the school offers no post-graduate year as an obstacle – they just haven’t adopted it yet (“I saved Latin. What did you ever do?” he boasts at one point).
Max is driven by his dead mother’s belief in him (it was she who secured his scholarship – Max’s father is a barber, although he tells others he’s a neurosurgeon – a hair’s breadth distinction): he writes all his terrible plays on her bequeathed typewriter with personalised message (“Go Max!”). It’s subtly underplayed though. Things come to a head when he falls for the young widow of a missing, dead explorer, the suitably exotic to Max, Second Grade teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). “Has it ever crossed your mind that you’re too young for me?” she asks, not unkindly. Max puts down his pencil thoughtfully. “It crossed my mind that you might consider that a possibility, yeah,” he replies. His rival for her affections is self-made steel magnate and unhappily married, father of two monstrous children, Herman Blume (Bill Murray).
We get a pithy insight into Bloom’s day via a dead – eyed Murray: cigarette dangling from his lip, whisky glass in hand, listlessly tossing golf balls into his swimming pool before cannonballing off the high board as his wife tries to hide her tennis coach flirtation at their kid’s party. As pointed out by Matt Zoller Seitz in his book, The Wes Anderson Collection, this scene mirrors the pool montage from The Graduate – as if viewed from Mr Robinson’s cuckolded POV. All perfectly backed by The Kinks and Nothin’ In This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl.
Max ropes the tycoon and former Rushmore student into a grand plan to fund an aquarium to impress Ms Cross, having discovered her husband Edward Appleby was a daring aquatic explorer. She sees in Max something of the dash and verve of her former life with him. Bloom also sees through Max a life, like his own surname, in renewal, unfettered by familial formula – and so begins an affair that sideswipes Max out of that “geometry equation“.
The triumvirate, in a comically related love triangle, come to heal each other and themselves in a bittersweet symphony, though not before a game of one-upmanship and rip- roaring rampage of revenge, Rushmore style, that even sees Max expelled from his beloved school. No matter. He brings his can – do attitude to the public school absurdly right across the street – Semper Fidelis,
Rushmore Grover Cleveland High.
Revenge, though, tinged with a grudging respect. Blume’s grin when he realises the bees in his hotel room were put there by Max quickly settles into a “payback time” scowl – he reverses his car repeatedly over max’s bicycle, like a Looney tunes character. He’s getting his mojo back. Meanwhile, Max exits the elevator in slow motion, ever the hero of his own personal narrative.
He’s quick with the repartee of the pseudo arch – sophisticate also. On a dinner date with Ms Cross, Blume and a doctor friend of his amour, Max quickly gets drunk. “I like your nurse’s uniform, guy,” he snips. “They’re O.R scrubs,” the doc, Owen Wilson (Anderson’s co-writer and former University of Austin classmate) replies. “O R they?” Max volleys back. A contrived gag for sure, but worth it just for Schwartzman’s delivery.
This follows on from the Max Fischer Players (delusions of grandeur akin to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre) staging of Serpico, complete with bullet wound to the cheek, undercover nun, and model elevated train. That play is where the title of this piece is derived from, by the way.
It’s kind of hard to get across the wit and gleeful nuance of Anderson’s best film (until The Grand Budapest Hotel) on the page. The marriage of tracking and dolly shots to perfectly timed lines and framed characters, extreme close-ups, anamorphic depth of field conveying the deluded self-awareness of Max’s forceful personality on his environment, the groovy British invasion tracks, montage, slow – motion, references to other films – Anderson throws everything at us here, and it just works like a dream. (I like to imagine this particular shot of Max on the telephone was inspired by Taxi Driver) –
Max’s control freakery and gradual maturation are comically empathetic, undercutting the asinine assumptions of teenage protagonists in such preternaturally aware shows as Dawson’s Creek, or The O.C. An epic, semi-serious approach to mid-life / adolescent melt – down.
Max’s climactic Vietnam war play, Heaven And Hell, in tribute to Bloom’s war memories and dedicated to his mother and Edward Appleby, is another over the top epic. But this time he’s not showboating. Everyone who appears in the film gets a slice of the pie, a chance to shine, including new age appropriate possible girlfriend (and Viet Cong sniper) Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka) – “When the fighting stops,” indeed. Dancing in groovy slow motion in the after party to The Faces singing
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.
As a bonus, here is Matt Zoller Seitz’s wonderful video essay on the film.