The Sincerity of ‘Rushmore’

While the Criterion Collection is equally fond of countless other directors, for some reason Wes Anderson sticks out to me as the quintessential Criterion contributor. 8 of his films are included in the Collection: that’s his entire filmography, minus 2018’s “Isle of Dogs” and 2020’s “The French Dispatch” (the latter was delayed due to COVID-19, while the former is only a matter of time).

Part of the reason I associate Anderson so strongly with the Criterion label is his age. While he just turned 51 in people years, in movie years he’s barely 25; to my knowledge, he’s the most popular contemporary director in the Collection. But far beyond his baby face, Wes Anderson stands as one of the leading auteurs of the 21st century. His signature style — the “Wes Anderson quirky” — is easily imitated but poorly understood, resulting in thousands of student film knock-offs (and a handful of professional ones, too). In “Rushmore,” Anderson’s 1998 sophomore feature, we meet the director just as he starts to define himself. Fitting, then, that “Rushmore” is a coming-of-age story.

Two years before (in 1996), Anderson burst onto the scene with “Bottle Rocket,” the screenplay for which he co-wrote with his good friend, Owen Wilson. The low-budget crime-comedy was adapted from his earlier short film of the same name, and while it failed to launch at the box office, it made a strong impression on the people who mattered. Come “Rushmore,” Anderson was working with double the budget, the backing of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures and not least of all, Bill freaking Murray. In fact, Murray loved the screenplay for “Rushmore” so much that he agreed to act in the film for only $9,000. Today, Murray says he doesn’t even read the roles for the scripts that Anderson sends him: “It’s an automatic yes.” So while “Bottle Rocket” showcased Anderson’s eccentricities in their infancy, “Rushmore” was more like cinematic puberty. I swear that’s a good thing.

The film is about a teenager named Max. He’s played by Jason Schwartzman in the first of many collaborations with Anderson, as well as in his first-ever on-screen role. Max is as precocious as they come: in an early montage sequence, we learn he’s involved in just about every student organization on campus, be it as the founder of the “Bombardment Society” or the president of the Beekeeping Club. He attends the titular Rushmore Academy, a prestigious, all-boys, K-12 private school. Max loves Rushmore to an almost unhealthy degree: when asked the secret to his success, he naively responds, “You’ve just gotta find something you love to do, and do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”

But his try-hard persona is just a veneer for a much humbler origin story. While his classmates are the sons of doctors, lawyers, and multi-million CEOs, Max’s single father owns a barbershop downtown. He’s only allowed to attend Rushmore on a generous theatre scholarship, which he’s close to having revoked due to his slowly slipping grades. Max represents so many young people: pretentious but promising, brilliant beyond his years but witless about the things that truly matter. He’s also a bit of a brat, so it’s a testament to Schwartzman that even when Max is at his worst (and that is often where he is), you cannot help but root for him.

Enter Herman Blume (Murray). He’s one of those aforementioned CEOs, a Texan industrialist worth upwards of $10 million. Like Max, his supposed success is just that: a facade that masks his crumbling marriage, the disrespect of his children, and the monotony of his everyday routine. Max and Blume are instantly drawn to one another’s ambition, making for an unexpected but somewhat fitting pair.

Anderson has always been interested in the irony of “growing up,” in the disparity between our experiences of it. Almost all of his films feature children acting like adults, adults acting like children, or in the case of “Rushmore,” both. Foreshadowing “The Royal Tenenbaums” and my personal favorite, “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson uses the friendship at the heart of “Rushmore” to ask: what does it mean to “grow up?” Is it as easy as aging, or does it demand more from us? And does the process ever really stop?

These questions come to the forefront when Max meets Rosemary (Olivia Williams). She’s a first grade teacher at Rushmore whose down-to-earth humility betrays her posh British accent and Harvard degree. In Rosemary, Max thinks he’s found a kindred spirit, when in reality he’s found the very person he’s pretending to be. So, he falls head-over-heels in love, but not before Blume does, too.

Anderson has said that “Rushmore” was heavily inspired by “The Graduate” and “Harold and Maude,” but while those films explored real relationships with older women, “Rushmore” is more concerned with the potential for one. Unlike Maude or Mrs. Robinson, Rosemary is acutely aware of the inappropriateness of a relationship, even if Max himself is not. “Has it ever crossed your mind that you’re far too young for me?” she asks. “It crossed my mind that you might consider it a possibility,” he replies. But as the film continues, we learn that Rosemary is a lot more like her suitors than she seems: an isolated young woman, stuck in her own form of arrested development.

“Rushmore” is in part an autobiography. Anderson attended an elite, Texan private school as a teenager, describing himself as an academic slacker who fell in love with an older woman. In fact, Anderson’s alma mater, St. John’s School in Houston, stood in for Rushmore Academy during filming. Stripped of the ornate production design that would come to define his work, “Rushmore” finds Anderson operating in the real world, instead. The result is a film that finds whimsy in ordinary life. It’s more muted than something like “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but Anderson’s eye for symmetry, motion, and depth are just beginning to blossom. “Rushmore” also features the first great Wes Anderson soundtrack: an eclectic mix inspired by the British Invasion of the 1960s and moreover, its concept of revolution.

“Rushmore” is also insanely quotable, with laugh-out-loud zingers that rival “The Life Aquatic” as well as more poignant moments true to the coming-of-age genre. I’ve always been a fan of Wes — if not a die-hard devotee — so to watch him plant the seeds for the director he’d become was nothing short of a joy for me. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but somehow that feels right. Accusations of style over substance are aplenty with Anderson, but watching “Rushmore,” it’s clear that his ~quirkiness~ isn’t an affectation, but fundamental to the stories he tells. For a director so obsessed with growing up, it only makes sense that his films read like storybooks (“Rushmore” is more like a YA chapter book, but I think my point still stands). 9/10

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