An eccentric prep school student becomes enamoured and embittered over an impossible love interest.
Sensitive. Subtle. And positively brilliant. “Rushmore” is perhaps the most honest and effective depiction of a tormented heart ever to be seen in modern cinema. Director Wes Anderson reunites with his co-writing partner from “Bottle Rocket”, Owen Wilson, to bring us this spectacularly paced film that defies the traditional pattern of romantic comedy. The moralistic sentiment is heartfelt and pure, but the tone and character psychology is vividly masculine. This is a story about men, and how badly we behave when our vulnerabilities are exposed.
The curtains slide open to reveal a prep school classroom in early September. Sophomore student Max Fischer is holding his teacup while single-handedly solving the world’s hardest mathematical equation in front of the classroom. Pleasant music orchestrated by Mark Mothersbaugh accompanies the action as Max puts the finishing touches on the blackboard. In a moment, we understand that this is a dream sequence. The reality is that Max is far from Rushmore Academy’s valedictorian list. In fact, he has just been put on sudden death probation.
It’s not that Max is uninterested in the sciences of his core curriculum. The situation is that he is overly absorbed in everything else. Publisher of the Yankee Review and President of the Rushmore Beekeepers, he is also the manager of the school lacrosse team, the founder of the Bombardment Society, captain of the Debate Team, and Director of the Max Fischer Players, a student run theatrical team in which cult films are re-enacted by school-age performers. His list of extracurricular activities stretches into the absurd. He also has a yellow belt in Kung Fu.
“What’s the secret, Max?” disillusioned Rushmore alumni and steel factory industrialist Herman Blume asks the young enthusiast.
“I think you should find something you love and do it for the rest of your life,” he answers. For Max Fischer, that means his lifelong enrollment at Rushmore.
Max’s exhausted set of priorities becomes even more complicated when he meets Rosemary Cross (played with natural grace by Olivia Williams), a beautiful and widowed youth instructor at Rushmore Academy. The two initiate a friendship, that soon includes Mr. Blume. Max is subtly forced to bury his romantic ambitions for Miss Cross. It is when Herman Blume discovers passion with her that the movie reaches it true comic potential. And it is from Max’s pained perspective that the movie earns its relentless dramatic appeal. We all know what it is like to be rejected by those we want to love. And the anguish locked behind the frames of Max’s spectacles is horribly familiar, but refreshingly not a cliche.
When drafting the first treatments for “Rushmore” before the release of “Bottle Rocket”, Anderson and Wilson envisioned Max Fischer as a disheveled British exchange student. They basically wanted a 15-year-old Mick Jagger dressed in a dark blazar and tie. Those expectations changed when Jason Schwartzman entered the room.
Bringing the same level of humble air Dustin Hoffman breathed into Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate”, Schwartzman installed a new dynamic to Max’s character. He is an overly ambitious flawed perfectionist, capable of great achievement but lacking common forethought.
Observing the pain in Schwartzman’s “oval” facial features, it is hard to picture Max Fischer as how Anderson and Wilson originally intended. That is the strength of the right actor in the right role.
“Never in my wildest imagination did I ever dream I would have sons like these,” Mr. Blume says to Max as he watches his identical twins compete in a wrestling match.
Probably never in Bill Murray’s wildest imaginations would he ever dream of playing a character so fractured and physically awkward as Herman Blume. Mr. Murray won several awards for his portrayal of the melancholic millionaire, including the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor. This is possibly Bill Murray’s best moment in entertainment. In a career that has impressed multiple generations, his representation of the miserable Mr. Blume is the perfect mixture of brooding self-hatred and subdued hysteria.
In all honesty, the story is probably less about Max’s infatuation with Miss Cross and more about his volatile friendship with Mr. Blume. The two of them strive for her affections, but are both childlike in their neglect to consider the consequences of reality.
In fact, Anderson has declared that this story embraces a heightened level of reality, exemplary of a Roald Dahl children’s book. Paying slight homage to French New Wave, Anderson breaks past the common expectations of traditional cinema and presents us with a stylistic rebellion story. Max may not be a central protagonist in the classical sense, but he does command our attentions as he gathers his creative energies in the Third Act to shake and destroy the social boundaries among his peers.
As with “Bottle Rocket”, Anderson’s production team constructs a slightly distorted look that blurs reality with enhanced color patterns and elaborate production designs. Inspect the background of any Wes Anderson movie and you can recognize the decorative style of his sets, which are loaded with more than enough props. And there will probably be too many characters in the frame. But Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman and Art Director Andrew Laws do an excellent job at remaining faithful to Anderson’s trademark of carefully balanced framework. The sets may be packed with actors and items, but they do not convolute the space. There is definite symmetry in each and every scene.
One final note regarding the subtle nature of this movie’s impressive creative design. There is a scene when Max Fischer rests in Miss Cross’ bedroom. You look around and realize this breathtaking woman resides in the unaltered style of her late husband, Edward Appleby. The décor is devoted to war memorabilia and old photographs. Take a close look at the pictures of young Edward Appleby: none other than Owen Wilson. His mother supplied the art department with old photographs of her second born. Keep your eyes peeled for brothers Luke and Andrew in other cameos.