Rushmore (1998)

I saved Latin! What did you ever do?

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 dissection of grief
  • 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, teen comedies, taboo student-teacher romances, love triangles, put-on-a-show revues — but yet is not quite like anything else, its own unique specimen.

Anderson’s visual sense is terrific here, his first real blooming as a generational stylist. The film is not quite as decadently embellished and painterly as his later films, but still constructed in thoughtful, geometric arrangements. It blends location and set shooting, giving it a sense of space that later Anderson films sometimes miss. 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 masterfully here.

(Anderson is also ingeniously providing commentary on his very technique, even at this early stage in his career: One of Max’s traits is that he creates stylized plays that use the stage in much the way that Anderson uses a film frame. Anderson would iterate on this concept until it reached its apotheosis in his recent French Dispatch and Asteroid City.)

What really makes Rushmore special is not the style itself, but the storytelling of the film, which is enhanced by that terrific visual style. Anderson pulls a trick that has become his calling card: the bizarre juxtaposition of deep grief and dry comedy as the exterior shell of a melancholy character study. There is a warm undercurrent buoying the surface-level cynicism. Anderson never flinches away from the off-putting Max, who borders on the sociopathic at times. And yet the writer-director reveals heaps of generosity and empathy buried beneath the wry wit and visual flair. Max emerges genuinely sympathetic, even heroic, by the end. It’s a proper arc of character growth, well-earned rather than tacked-on.

Schwartzman is terrific in his first-ever film performance, blending charm with some edge. He’s a perfect fit for Anderson’s stew of pathos and deadpan. He leads an outstanding ensemble: Murray gives one of his great performances, 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. The ensemble includes are a million funny little performances that steal scenes for seconds at a time. There’s also one particularly touching supporting turn: Seymour Cassel as Max’s infinitely sweet and patient barber father.

Among Rushmore’s many terrific touches, perhaps its best is its pop soundtrack. Its British Invasion needles drops place the film in a nebulous mid/late-century 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. For example, 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 whose many stumbles eventually lead to discovery of truth, it is as uplifting as it is tempered with darkness and cynicism. Put another way, wayward adolescents are the perfect subject for Anderson’s style. As his stories become more adult and serious, his style ossifies; teens are just more believably twee. (Uncoincidentally, Rushmore 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 greatest directors of the past quarter century.

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2 replies on “Rushmore (1998)”

As Wes Anderson feels like he’s always had the soul of an old man, maybe that’s why my favorite is The Life Aquatic. Then again, Moonrise Kingdom is right there, duking it out with Grand Budapest and good ol’ Rushmore. It doesn’t help that this one still *feels* like a normal (even though it’s not really a normal), and not the infinitely fussy Anderson we’d be getting soon. (Not in The Royal Tenenbaums, necessarily–it’s actually less fussy than I remembered–and frankly I’ve probably just seen that one too many times because people who hate Anderson now still like that one, and for no good reason except I guess he got old for them, stylistically.)

I do agree that Anderson has “the soul of an old man” — the kind who reads the New Yorker and watches Godard films. So you’re right that makes it odd that my favorite Anderson films are centered on kids and teens.

My entire circle is pretty pro-Anderson, with maybe one exception, and even he frames it as “I am aware that his thing is not my thing.”

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