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Non-Review Review: Rushmore

I am quite fond of Rushmore. It’s strange, because I found that Anderson’s schtick wore off on many of his following films – The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited. I suspect my affection for the film is rooted in the fact that it was the first Wes Anderson film I ever saw, and so his quirks and style were refreshing to me. There is, after all, nobody who writes movie dialogue and directs scenes quite like Wes Anderson. In a way, he feels a bit like Quentin Tarantino, an autuer who seems to sign almost every frame of his work. I think, perhaps, that I am so partial to Rushmore because Anderson’s plot devices and his writing seem much better suited to it than to many of the films that followed. After all, it’s a lot easier to accept a film based around a character who acts like an emotionally immature teenager when that character is an emotionally immature teenager.

It all goes to the Max…

Of course, Anderson’s style is obvious from the opening scene and through the credits – there’s a particular style to the way that the writer and director works that makes his work instantly recognisable. However, it’s the exchange immediately after those opening credits that really is quintessentially Anderson-ian. It’s rapid-fire banter that is curiously pedantic – as if the characters aren’t really listening to each other, just trying to respond rapidly so as to avoid an awkward silence.

We’re putting you on what we call  “sudden death academic probation.”

And what does that entail?

It entails that if you  fail another class, you’ll be asked  to leave Rushmore.

In other words,  I’ll be expelled.

That’s correct.

Could I see some documentation on that, please?

Our lead character is Max Fiescher, a Rushmore busy body. He’s like one of those perennial college students, so addicted to a life free of obligations and responsibility that he wants to stay there forever, rather than growing up. When he’s warned about his grades, his first response is to suggest a remedial year, one that would afford him even more time in Rushmore Academy. Herman Blume asks Max for the secret to his hectic high-octane life-style, and the kid responds, “I think you just gotta find  something you love to do, and then do it  for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”

Playing the card he’s dealt…

Of course, Max isn’t interested in study. His grades are bad. He’d much rather while away his time founding and managing various student societies and enjoying the freedom of youth. His only academic awards are punctuality and perfect attendance, but he’s still the undisputed king of Rushmore – he directs lavish stage shows, looks out for the younger students and is known to all the staff. He was accepted on a scholarship for playwriting, and he even has a business card. It’s suggested that the only students who seem to resent him dislike him because they aren’t included in any of his nerdish plans.

While we see the countless hobbies and interests that Max flirts with during is time at school, his real gift seems to be staging shows. And it seems that this reflects quite adeptly on Max – he’s a character who observes the world quite well, but has no idea of how the world actually works. His dialogue seems borrowed from popular culture, rather than grounded in any sort of experience. Indeed, it’s highly likely that he has no real experience of life outside of Rushmore. He calls his Scottish bully a “dumb Mick” like something he borrowed from a film, despite the fact that it’s the wrong ethnic slur. When he tries to get a teacher fired with scandalous photos, he’s labelled an “informer.”

The Blume of life?

Max is the kinda kid who wants to go to college, but has no idea what he wants to study. He’s not there to learn, he’s there to enjoy the atmosphere. “My top schools where I want  to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne,” he tells the new teacher. “My safety’s Harvard.” Asked what he wants to study, he doesn’t seem to have put much thought into it, making the courses themselves seem like after-thoughts. “Well… I haven’t  decided for sure, but probably a double major  in mathematics and pre-med.”

And yet, despite all this, he’s still a child. He tries to mask it with a superiority complex, use of frames of reference outside the High School, and an air of sophistication, but Max is a child who seems unaware of the impact his actions can have on others. He’s self-centred to the point of borderline sociopathy. When his teacher hooks up with his best friend, he conspires to get her fired and to ruin his friend’s marriage. He lies about his father, trying to convince people that he’s the son of a neurosurgeon, rather than that of a barber.

Less is Rushmore…

Indeed, it’s very hard to like Max. He’s incredibly self-centred, exploitative and he ruins the lives of the two people closest to him. He lacks any sort of social skills, and seems to fixate on ideas without any thought for context. An off-hand remark from his crush leads to an eight-million dollar aquarium. Even after it’s build, she observes, “Well, you know, I never asked anyone  to build me an aquarium.” And yet, despite his selfishness and his lack of any social skill, or perhaps because of them, Max makes for an intriguing central character.

Of course, Max has the excuse of being a kid – you’re inclined to make allowances (even if Max does cross several lines). Herman has no such justification for his behaviour. He’s a businessman and a father who seems to have little interest in either, and seems somewhat drawn to Max’s enthusiasm and energy. It is quite pathetic – particularly when he falls into the “buying the teenager booze to appear popular”trap. Max and Herman are, despite the years between them, both emotionally immature kids. Herman just happens to be overgrown.

Save the last dance…

At one point, like something from primary school, Max sends Herman to apologise to his crush, rather than doing it in person, and Herman childishly approaches hiding behind trees. “You know,” Rosemary advises Max, “you and Herman  deserve each other. You’re both little children.” When their friendship breaks down, both ultimately end up resorting to tired and pathetic pranks, rather than actually dealing with any of their issues. (Of course, both characters seem to have learned very little by the end of the film, perhaps just enough to wind up functioning a little bit.)

Anderson’s cast is fantastic. Jason Schwartzman makes for a great lead, but the film really belongs to Bill Murray, who pretty much single-handedly resurrected his career and affirmed himself as an indie darling. Murray seems to be genuinely enjoying himself here, and it’s great to watch – he makes Herman such a deliciously pathetic character, with his dodgy moustache and the cigarette constantly dangling from his lips. Olivia Williams is brilliant as Rosemary, as usual. And Brian Cox makes the most of a relatively minor role, as does Luke Wilson.

The full Nelson….

Anderson’s script, written with Owen Wilson, is wry and brilliantly cynical. Anderson’s direction is quirky without being self-indulgent. While you can definitely detect Anderson’s unique style at work here, it’s notquite as surreal as some of his work that would follow. It allows the real world to encroach on Max’s romantic fantasy more than once. (The early scenes at Grover Cleveland High School being perhaps the most obvious and effective examples.)

I’d still argue that Rushmore is my favourite of Anderson’s early films, but I concede it might be down to the fact that it was the first that I saw. I’d recommend any film fan – casual or otherwise – to give at least one Anderson film a try. He’s an acquired taste, to be sure, but I think he’s unique enough that he’s worth sampling. And I think Rushmore makes for perhaps the safest opportunity to dip your toe into the Anderson-ian waters. On reflection, I probably find both The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom to be stronger films, but Rushmore holds a special place in my affections.

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