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The title of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore refers to the ivy-covered prep school attended by the film’s central character, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman). Max, with his bushy eyebrows and imposing glasses, loves his school beyond reason and is Rushmore’s number one go-getter—editor of the school paper, president of the French club, organizer of the calligraphic society, proud member of the wrestling team. He is also, as the school’s headmaster notes, “one of the worst students we’ve got.” In his eagerness to succeed, Max is failing. It is his one character flaw, and the organizing principle of a profoundly American comedy in the direct tradition of Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain used his adolescent hero to provide an outsider’s viewpoint on a rapidly stratifying American society, a republican dream pulling apart into divisions of age, income and race. Rushmore is also about class divisions—Max, the son of the local barber (Seymour Cassel), is attending the exclusive school on a scholarship—but Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, more wishful thinkers than Twain, use comedy to imagine the healing of those divisions, the reweaving of relationships across the lines of class and generation.
An American dreamer who refuses to allow reality to limit his aspirations, Max conceives a passionate crush on Rushmore’s lonely, lovely first grade teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Willliams) and befriends the local self-made millionaire, Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a melancholic steel magnate who has lived out his dream and found it empty. Out of the unlikely triangle that develops among the three characters, Anderson develops a deeply moving interplay of abandoned hopes and rekindled aspirations, of reality and romanticism.
Rushmore has some strongly autobiographical elements: it was shot at St. John’s, the Houston prep school that Anderson attended (he later went to the University of Texas at Austin, with future collaborator Wilson). Like Max, Wilson was expelled from school and Anderson used the school auditorium to stage his own plays: action epics with titles like The Five Maseratis and The Battle of the Alamo. On another level, Max is, perhaps, representative of all artists who use their work to arrange and control the world around them. A play will be his way of reassembling his life, of bringing Blume and Miss Cross back together, of reintegrating a whole range of broken friendships and incidental enmities, into a balanced community.
Anderson uses symmetrical widescreen compositions to give the film just a slight air of stylization, and long, graceful camera movements to tie together seemingly disparate characters and incidents. There are some marvelously subtle moments of expressive editing, as when Anderson uses ellipses to suggest that Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka), Max’s would-be, more age-appropriate girlfriend, has arrived on the scene in her radio-controlled model plane, and later departs the same way.
Like the great Ernst Lubitsch (Ninotchka), Anderson has learned to pack a maximum amount of information into a minimum amount of screen time. Entire characters are established by a gesture, an accent, a detail of costume; when the camera, in the climactic sequence, surveys a row of spectators at Max’s new play, we have the feeling that we know them all, even though some of them are appearing for the first time.
But technique can only go a small way toward explaining the effect of a film as intricate and vivid as this, with its simultaneous sobriety and eccentricity, its love of grand gestures and its respect for the tiniest fluctuations of emotions, its underlying sadness and great, bursting hopefulness. That is the stuff of poetry, and in this, only his second film, Wes Anderson has shown himself a poet of the first order.
Dave Kehr's film criticism has appeared in many anthologies and publications, from Premiere to Cahiers du cinéma. A collection of his work, When Movies Mattered, was published in 2011 by University of Chicago Press. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection's 1999 DVD release of Rushmore.