I'm a barber, but a lot of people make that mistake
Rushmore is Wes Anderson’s second film, but it really feels like his proper debut. It has a lot of Wes Anderson firsts, many of which would become hallmarks of his filmography:
- first film shot in anamorphic widescreen
- first pairing with music supervisor Randall Poster
- first casting of Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman
- first broken-down child-parent relationship
- first play or movie within the movie
- first chapter titles appearing on screen
- first use of reality-breaking artifice (stage curtains in frame)
- first nested opening scenes
- first masterpiece
This is a much more personal film than Bottle Rocket and most of the films he’s made that followed it: Anderson and Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the film, plumb their own adolescent experiences to craft a one-of-a-kind teen comedy. Three characters all haunted by death in different degrees — precocious 15-year-old Max Fischer (Schwartzman), whose mother died of cancer; first-grade teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), whose husband drowned; and steel magnate Herman Blume (Murray), who survived Vietnam (”I was in the shit”) — criss-cross each others’ lives. The film borrows tropes from boarding school stories, taboo student-teacher romances, love triangle soaps, and put-on-a-show revues, but yet not quite like anything else.
Anderson’s visual sense is terrific here. The film is not quite as decadently embellished and painterly as his later films. It blends location and set shooting, giving it a sense of space that later Anderson films sometimes miss. But this is unmistakably the moment that Anderson finds his calling: the precision of the whip-pans; the stage-like compositions that use the full frame; and the outstanding fashion-magazine colors are all fully-formed. He’d dabbled in some of these techniques in Bottle Rocket; he uses them expertly here.
What really makes Rushmore special is not the style but something special in the storytelling; a warm undercurrent that elevates all of the best of Anderson’s films: There is generosity and empathy buried beneath the wry wit and visual flair. Max, who borders on the sociopathic in the first half of the film, emerges genuinely sympathetic and big-hearted by the end. It’s a proper arc of character growth, well-earned rather than tacked-on.
Schwartzman is terrific in his first film performance, blending charm with some edge. He’s a perfect fit for Anderson’s flavor of dry humor and stew of pathos and deadpan. He leads an outstanding ensemble: Murray gives one of his great performances that’s both funny and deeply sad, a nice warm-up for The Life Aquatic, one of his career apexes. Williams fits the role of proper formality falling apart at the edges perfectly. Among the supporting and bit roles, there are a million funny little performances that are steal scenes for seconds at a time. There’s also one particularly touching one: Seymour Cassel as Max’s infinitely sweet and patient barber father.
Among Rushmore’s many terrific touches, its best is its pop soundtrack. Its British Invasion needles drops place the film in a nebulous midcentury setting: It’s not exactly a period piece, but has enough retro touches to feel like it could be. More importantly, the soundtrack provides tremendous emotional texture, each song adding rich dimensions to scenes and characters like a swelling wave. The film-closing “Ooh La La” by Faces is touchingly sweet, its group dance with quirky energy evoking Wes Anderon’s beloved Charlie Brown Christmas. Honestly, the use of music for enriching scenes is operating near Dazed and Confused levels. World-class music selection by Anderson and Poster.
Rushmore is one of the great films of the ‘90s, a miraculous blend of tones and techniques that all still feel like a whole. And because it centers on a wounded teen who stumbles and stumbles (and stumbles) before discovering some profound truth, it is uplifting even as it’s tempered with darkness and bite. Put another way, adolescents are the perfect subject for Anderson’s style. As his stories became more adult and serious, his style ossified just a hair. (Uncoincidentally, this and Moonrise Kingdom are my two favorites by the director.)
Perhaps most astoundingly of all, Rushmore is not a magical peak that Anderson would never reach again, but a mere launching point for a remarkable string of great films that places him among the very best directors of the past quarter century.