MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Jason Schwartzman (Max Fischer), Bill Murray (Herman Blume), Olivia Williams (Rosemary Cross), Brian Cox (Dr. Guggenheim), Seymour Cassel (Bert Fischer), Mason Gamble (Dirk Calloway), Sara Tanaka (Margaret Yang), Stephen McCole (Mangus Buchan), Luke Wilson (Dr. Peter Flynn)
There is a moment near the middle of Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" when a character makes a statement that essentially sums up the appeal of the film itself. Speaking to the film's protagonist, 15-year-old extracurricular prodigy Max Fischer, a young schoolteacher with whom he has fallen in love says, "I've never met anyone like you."
This moment is telling because, in the history of movies, there have been few (if any) characters who are quite like Max Fischer. Brilliantly played in his first role by Jason Schwartzman (son of actress Talia Shire), Max is a wonderfully complex enigma who is made all the more fascinating because he exists in a cinematic world that is usually populated by uninteresting teen-aged characters who are either single-minded hormone machines or gross caricatures of the various cliched strata of high school society. No, Max is different, and it is his difference that makes him memorable.
Max could be best described as over-committed. He attends the prestigious Rushmore Academy, a first-rate prep school for boys that he attends on scholarship (he was offered the scholarship after writing a play in second grade--"a little one-act about Watergate"). Unlike most of the other wealthy students who attend Rushmore, Max comes from a working-class background (his father, play with care and dignity by Seymour Cassel, is a barber), and the threat of spending the rest of his life back in his blue-collar roots is always lurking behind Max's ambition.
The problem is that Max is so busy with his various extracurricular activities that his grades are always in decline. His positions of leadership in after-school activities include, but are not limited to, editor-in-chief of the yearbook; president of the French Club, the Calligraphy Club, and the Rushmore Beekeepers; vice-president of the Stamp and Coin Club; captain of the debate team and the fencing team; and, most importantly, director of his own drama troupe, the Max Fischer Players (all this information is given to us in a beautifully realized and hilarious montage set to Creation's "Making Time").
Max is gifted--a genius, perhaps--but his are the kinds of gifts that don't fit neatly on report cards and college transcripts. He is so ambitious that he circumvents the normal channels of success and finds himself in a kind of alternate universe where he happily writes feature-length plays about Frank Serpico and organizes the funding for a new on-campus aquarium, but is always risking a life of mediocrity because society won't bend to his rules. In some ways, the thrust of Max's life is as simple as trying to get people to accept him for what he is. And, above all, he is not a good student. But, then again, neither was Albert Einstein.
The storyline in "Rushmore" takes the loose form of a comedic coming-of-age saga, in which Max finally pulls his nose out of his various obsessions long enough to find true love. Unfortunately, his true love is centered on a recently widowed young schoolteacher named Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). When Miss Cross asks Max whether or not it has ever crossed his mind that he is "far too young" for her, his calm reply is, "It crossed my mind that you might consider that a possibility."
Max also strikes up a friendship with Herman Blume (Bill Murray, in perhaps his best performance), a steel tycoon who generally despises his own life, especially his two imbecilic sons who also attend Rushmore. In Max, Mr. Blume finds something of a soul-mate, although they are soon turned into enemies when Mr. Blume begins courting Miss Cross, which Max sees as the ultimate betrayal. Some of the film's funniest setpieces involve Max and Mr. Blume carrying out various schemes to exact revenge on each other. As Miss Cross says to Max at one point, "You and Herman deserve each other. You're both little children."
This statement is wonderfully telling because it gets to the heart of Max's enigmatic personality. In some ways, he seems uncomfortably mature beyond his years. He is always impeccably dressed--an opening scene in chapel seems designed to locate Max as the only student wearing a blazer and tie--and he carries himself with the kind of authority and confidence not normally associated with a tenth-grader. Yet, his emotional insecurity and general naivete about the way the world really works slowly makes its way to the surface in his futile pursuit of Miss Cross's affections. At first he appears to be a man in a boy's body, but it is soon made clear that he is simply a boy trying to be a man too fast. When Max self-referentially notes that "war does funny things to men," his inclusion of himself as a man is, in his own eyes, completely unironic and perfectly fitting.
"Rushmore" is the sophomore collaboration between Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson (Anderson directed, they both wrote the script), whose first film, "Bottle Rocket" (1996), was written off by many as a Tarantino clone. Whatever one feels about that film, it is impossible to deny the unique qualities of "Rushmore." It is a wholly original conception that is constructed of familiar parts of other films (a young man in love with an older woman, the setting at a prep school, the battle with the school bully, etc.) that are somehow reassembled into something that feels new.
And, at the center of it all is Max Fischer, an unforgettable character whose life almost begs to be followed in subsequent films. There are few characters who are interesting enough to sustain repeated examination in a series of films, but if ever there were one, Max Fischer is it.
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Surround
Extras: Audio commentary by director Wes Anderson, co-writer Owen Wilson, and actor Jason Schwartzman; "The Making of 'Rushmore'" behind-the-scenes documentary; Max Fischer Players' adaptations of "The Truman Show," "Armageddon," and "Out of Sight" filmed for the 1999 MTV Movie Awards; episode of "The Charlie Rose Show" featuring Bill Murray and Wes Anderson; cast audition footage; storyboards and film-to-storyboard comparisons; original theatrical trailer; props, posters, and photos
Video: The picture on the Criterion Collection edition of "Rushmore," the result of a new, director-supervised transfer enhanced for widescreen TVs, is superb. The picture is bright and sharp, the colors deeply are saturated with no bleeding, and there are no artifacts and defects to speak of. The picture is nicely framed in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with no noticeable edge enhancement.
Audio: The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is also very nice. The dialogue is always rich and clear, and the surround-sound does a nice job of breaking up the memorable '60s British Invasion tunes that frequent the soundtrack, as well as Max's memorably explosive Vietnam play that ends the film.
Extras: The extras, a hallmark of Criterion discs, are somewhat hit and miss. The running audio commentary by director Wes Anderson, co-writer Owen Wilson, and actor Jason Schwartzman is generally entertaining; but, because it was edited together from three separate recordings, it lacks the enjoyable spontaneity of an audio commentary that is recorded with all the principles sitting together. The "Making of 'Rushmore'" documentary, which was shot by Wes Anderson's brother, is light and sometimes funny, but not particularly enlightening. The episode of "The Charlie Rose Show" with Bill Murray and Wes Anderson is a nice addition, but it takes a while to get interesting. Murray is on first, and he spends the first ten minutes talking about agents and how he feels about Mike Ovitz returning to the business. Overall, though, the extras constitute a nice package, even if they aren't quite up to the usual standards of a Criterion release.
©2000 James Kendrick