Max Fischer’s life comes in segments. His mom died when he was little. His dad runs a barber shop, but he tells everyone that he’s a neurosurgeon (always conveniently on call). He’s a student at a prestigious prep school called Rushmore. In Rushmore, he’s either the member, founder, or president of a bunch of extracurricular activity clubs. He meets one of the school’s teachers and falls madly in love with her. An industrialist named Herman Blume befriends Max and also falls in love with the teacher. Max moves from one point in his life to another as if nothing is ever connected.
This is the way Wes Anderson films his second feature, Rushmore. The movie, though inspired and very visually alive, is disjointed in the way it portrays the events of Max’s life. Scenes begin with great promise, and then they’re seemingly wiped clean off the negative reel. Complications are hinted at but never fully realised or resolved. At times the movie could’ve ended on any scene and it’d never have registered that the story was incomplete.
Max is played by Jason Schwartzman (son of The Godfather stalwart, Talia Shire, in his first role) who, with no prior acting experience, crafts his character with minute precision. Max is always sure footed, even if he’s not level headed, and Schwartzman wipes the emotion off his face in favour of a more rigid, less expressive facade. In fact all the characters in Rushmore speak with the utmost seriousness. Even when they’re angry or mocking, their faces remain stern, almost lifeless. The comedy grows from the lines they deliver, and because they deliver them so coldly, its impact is compounded. A dinner scene with an uninvited guest stands as one of the film’s swiftest moments.
Bill Murray plays Blume, and the performance is among his finest. Blume is a broken man in a failed relationship, but he hides his self-loathing by sinking to the bottom of the swimming pool and strutting around his massive industrial plant, where sparks fly constantly and nothing is ever produced. Murray, usually flippant in his earlier roles in Tootsie and Ghostbusters, warps Blume into a twisted individual whose exterior betrays his emotions. His performance cleverly blends the pathological, the saccharine and the absurd, a combination he will hone and perfect the more he works with Anderson.
The plot is easy and straightforward, but co-writers Anderson and Owen Wilson weave little knick-knacks through and around the story’s focal points. There are a few stage play interludes where Max gets to show off his love of theatre and language and film references. There’s the odd side story of a Scottish bully at Rushmore, who fondles increasingly dangerous household weapons the more times we see him. And there’s the proposal to construct a giant aquarium on campus grounds that acts as a romantic litmus test for Max and Blume. None of these subplots are given a beginning or end. They are plopped in between the story strands and cut off as soon as they’re not needed. The Scottish bully, for instance, becomes a star in a reenactment of the Vietnam War.
Wes Anderson is a visual prodigy. He knows how to manipulate colour and optimise the camera track and pan to contradict his characters’ emotions. He also relishes dark comedy; comedy that nudges you then runs away and hides. His characters are always social oddballs; their bodies exist in the real world but their minds and ethics stem from faraway places. Rushmore has all these traits in abundance. It is consistently funny. Its colours are deep and meaningful. Schwartzman delivers Max and Murray delivers Blume. If only it would finish what it has to say.
Anderson will go on to direct far better and more popular films (The Royal Tenenbaums, perhaps his greatest, is only a few years away), but as a second feature, Rushmore is a calculated success.
Best Moment | The dinner scene.
Worst Moment | The end, where everything is wrapped up just a tad too neatly, specifically for an Anderson/Wilson screenplay.