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Holy Hell! Rushmore Turns 20

Holy Hell! Rushmore Turns 20

Rushmore is now five years older than its protagonist.

Rushmore is now five years older than its protagonist, the sometimes brilliant and regularly acerbic Max Fischer. Played by Jason Schwartzman, Max is a prep-school dilettante par excellence, one who dips a toe in countless extra-curriculars such as fencing, debate, Model UN, beekeeping and (most importantly) drama. We learn of these non-academic distractions and others early into Rushmore, during a deadpan montage scored by The Creation’s 1966 garage-rock classic “Making Time.”

Back in ’98, this sublime audiovisual sequence introduced a scrappy film, and heralded the arrival of an indie auteur. Two decades later, Rushmore has shed its shagginess like a second skin to reveal a surprisingly refined specimen. And its blueprint, which has only been tweaked along the edges by Wes Anderson for later films, exemplifies an early draft of his cinematic playbook, something akin to holy writ.

This isn’t a complaint, mind you, at least not from me. Anderson is, above all, an unabashed stylist. On the surface, he traffics in exquisite artifice, a prissiness from which he wrings humanity and universal truth. Rushmore, fun as ever, is nominally about an improbable love triangle that leads to petty acts of revenge, and then a quest for reconciliation and redemption. But the fundamental, conflicting themes Anderson regularly wrangles with – acceptance versus exile, joy versus woe, excellence versus mediocrity, us versus them, life versus death – are first presented here fully formed.

Rushmore is, notably, the least-twee entry in Anderson’s oeuvre, besides his proof-of-concept debut Bottle Rocket. There’s a teenaged frustration – one of grit and dirt, rebellion and anger, swirling hormones and hurt feelings – that stands in stark contrast to the immaculate, Andersonian dioramas to come. Max’s rage is red-hot next to the lilting ennui of Sam, the protagonist of Moonrise Kingdom, his closest counterpart.

Wes Anderson has improved his filmmaking template, which mixes pitch-perfect soundtrack choices with moments of visual bliss. And yet, Rushmore towers above and apart from such oncoming fussiness, and is instead a character study. There’s the still-bleeding rawness of Bill Murray’s dejected industrialist Herman Blume. There’s the overwhelming nakedness of Oliva Williams’ widowed teacher Rosemary Cross. And then, there’s the puckish glee of Jason Schwartzman’s darkly heroic Max Fischer.

These three characters are the inputs for Rushmore’s wayward trigonometry. For Max, at least, academia represents a sense of self, of belonging. But it’s also a tool that backfires as an attempt at romance. Only when he accepts his limitations, his failings, does he finally achieve something close to self-love.

Rushmore is a comedy, a bildungsroman, a romance of sorts. Most of all, it’s a clarion call. Wes Anderson would eventually construct marzipan monuments such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But his sophomore feature is built with flesh and blood. Humanity is its subject and object. Laughter is its final cause.

Both combine into an Andersonian masterpiece. Artifice rarely sparkles so brightly. Truth rarely blinds so dazzlingly. A breakout feature rarely rides on goodwill so effortlessly. Rushmore is, more than ever, one of a kind.

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Lunkhead McGrath

    Max was an annoying little twat and counts as the only time I’ve actually stood up and cheered during the obligatory scene where he gets punched out by the school bully.

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