The theme of the month at the local bijou is “Wes is More”: I think, capitalizing on the phenomenal success of the Paul Thomas Anderson month—every movie sold out, basically—our clever programmers have tried the same tactic with the whimsical Wes Anderson (no relation, as far as I know) with nearly as promising results. The first film Rushmore, sold out, as would the next week’s Royal Tennenbaums and the third week’s Bottle Rocket, though there were no second theaters opened to catch the overflow, as with the PTA films. I feel like Wes is not as popular here as Paul Thomas, but it could also be the big budget openers like Black Panther that are prohibiting the use of extra screens.
Anyway, Rushmore was Wes Anderson’s second film, and the first one of his that I saw. I remembered liking it at the time, but not loving it, and I wanted to see how I would feel about it 20 years later. (I actually skipped seeing The Royal Tennebaums, and come back to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which is the weakest of his films except maybe Darjeeling Limited, which is week 4.)
I loved it. Better than I remembered, and a sharp reminder of what it was about Zissou I didn’t like: You have a whimsical world which is, nonetheless, meant to be literal. Your characters are prickly—difficult, even—but they must be charming and good at heart. And behind it all, the world view must be benign.
Otherwise you got bad people doing bad things for bad reasons and sorta getting away with it—and they’re not even fun to hang out with.
Rushmore features 17-year-old Jason Schwartzman as Max, a kind of BMOC at the prestigious Rushmore Academy, which he has gained entry to by way of a scholarship based on a play he wrote as a youngster. He is the head of seemingly dozens of extra-curricular activities, including the chess club, the theater club, the fencing club—but he is failing virtually every actual class he has.
Max is a salesman, a bit of a con artist, and a guy whose vision of himself is bigger than the actual product, but one of the saving graces of him as a character is that it’s not that much bigger. He wants to be a math genius and to revolutionize the world through his scientific and engineering brilliance—which he falls dramatically short of—but when you start to think that maybe he’s all talk, you realize he’s done quite a lot.
He actually does organize and motivate people, and this is a real skill that he carries with him in the third act, when his shenanigans with a beautiful kindergarten teacher (Olivia Williams) gets him expelled.
The movie is basically a love triangle: Rosemary (Williams) captures Max’s heart (no matter how hard she tries to prevent it) while the hapless wealthy Rushmore benefactor Herman (Bill Murray, who took scale and paid for aspects of the movie) also ends up falling for her, result in an ever escalating campaign pitting the two former friends against each other.
It can get mean. Lives are destroyed, sorta. Herman is married but the only time we see his wife, she’s expressing far more intimacy with the pool boy—at her son’s birthday party—than is appropriate, so we can assume that Max’s efforts only accelerated the inevitable.
But that’s the way of Wes Anderson’s movies: Things are funny, quirky, seemingly benign, and then something comes up to remind us that as amusing as people are (and they are, very often), they’re also real, they feel pain, and actions do have consequences. It keeps things from just being silly or easily dismissed. Even, as what might observe, when they have many of the characteristics of fairy tales.
Max, for example, has as a long deceased mother, and his father is way too old, and a simple barber, not befitting his son’s vision of himself. Parents are conspicuously absent in Bottle Rocket, as well, and orphans abound in Anderson’s other films. When parents are around, they often don’t act like parents, or with a highly misguided view of what parents should do (Royal Tennenbaums).
Ultimately, though, the film works because the people—for all their quirks and comical irresponsibility—seem real. We’re all Max to a degree, and/or Herman, and/or Rosemary, and even the school bully Magnus (Stephen McCole), gets a measure of depth and kindness that is often missing from films. And for all his grandiosity, Max’s plays seem to be genuinely good, giving us a little more reason to respect and admire him, even when he can be very awful, indeed.
The acting is always good in Wes Anderson films: They rely on it, are powered by it as well as top-notch editing and comic timing, but I was deeply moved by Olivia Williams performance on this viewing. It’s a very difficult role, really, since she has to be tragically romantic (she’s a young widow), tolerant of Max, tolerant of Herman, and then she has to deliver a cutting blow to get Max to back off. It’s kind of brutal, but we know, as the audience that not only is Max not the kind of guy to take “no” for an answer, he’s the sort of guy you might have to call the cops on to get through to. (Not that he’s dangerous, but he just doesn’t give up.)
So she must deliver this speech, and carry with it all the pain of her loss, and the anger at being pestered, and on and on, and still be likable. And it works. It’s one of those hard little gems in Anderson’s films that remind you that while his tone is generally light, he respects his characters. He’s not putting on a clown show.
The kids really liked it as well, but I may have liked it most of all. I surely appreciated it more now than 20 years ago.