Rushmore (review)

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Dazed and Confused

I wanted to like Rushmore. I really did. While I was watching it, I kept telling myself: This is exactly the kind of movie I complain there aren’t enough of, with inventive characters, an unpredictable plot, and a fresh, off-kilter point of view. So what’s not to like?

Fifteen-year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is “one of the worst students” at Rushmore Academy, “one of the best schools in the country.” A bizarre misfit of a child, Max is at least superbly ambitious and at best a rare, multitalented genius: In second grade, he wrote a play about Watergate that earned him a scholarship to this exclusive school. Now, he satisfies his diverse interests by not only participating in but also inventing extracurricular activities: He’s president of the beekeepers club and founder of the backgammon club; he’s director of the Max Fischer Players, his own personal theater troupe; naturally, he’s also on the yearbook staff and captains many of the school’s sports teams. But a complete lack of interest in studying threatens to get him expelled from Rushmore.
Movies too often depict intelligent and talented kids (and often adults) like Max in the most negative light imaginable, as dorks and losers (see my complaints about Outside Providence). Refreshingly, Rushmore — directed by Wes Anderson and written by Anderson and actor Owen Wilson (The Haunting) — refuses to treat Max so poorly. Max may be an obnoxious, immature twit (pretty much par for the course for a 15-year-old boy), but he’s also the darling of Rushmore, a geek hero with an acolyte in young Dirk (Mason Gamble: Arlington Road, GATTACA). Even the school bully who mercilessly taunts Max finally confesses a long-held desire to appear in one of Max’s plays. In fact, while Max imagines greatness for himself, fantasizing about all the school cheering his genius, he’s practically there already.

So what turned me off? Let’s see if I can put my finger on it.

The film sees Max falling hopelessly in awkward teenage love with a young, pretty teacher, Miss Cross (the Greta Scacchi-esque Olivia Williams: The Sixth Sense, The Postman); expelled from his beloved Rushmore and forced to attend public school; and fighting for Miss Cross’s attentions with a bored and lonely tycoon, Herman Blume (Bill Murray), and a young doctor, Peter Flynn (Luke Wilson: Telling Lies in America — Owen’s brother). But the plot is more than just unpredictable: Events rarely seem to follow from what has come before, so I never really got caught up in the story. Things happened too much at random.

I could appreciate that Blume is one of Bill Murray’s best performances yet, but I didn’t really care all that much about Blume himself. I could see the parallels the filmmakers were drawing between Blume and Miss Cross’s dead husband, but I didn’t see that those parallels gave me any particular insight into what she found attractive in Blume.

I could appreciate the simultaneously sensitive and outrageous performance by Jason Schwartzman (who, astoundingly, was only a few years older than Max when Rushmore was made), but Max himself was too enigmatic for my taste. For example, Max tells everyone that his father (Seymour Cassel) is a neurosurgeon; later, he admits proudly that his father is actually a barber. That Max loves and admires his father for what he actually is is clear — what isn’t clear is why he initially lied and what made him change his mind and start telling the truth.

I could appreciate the ironic comedy to be found in the escalating war of blackmail, revenge, and generally childish nastiness as Max and Blume battle for Miss Cross (“War does funny things to men,” Max comes to realize). But I didn’t get much of a chuckle out of it.

Much of what I’m pinpointing in Rushmore as not working for me, I’ll admit, are exactly the kinds of things that I’ve raved over in other films. The End of Violence, for instance, hasn’t got much of a plot, yet I found that film fascinating. Very Bad Things amused me with its characters’ very bad behavior. I don’t know why this is. Rushmore is certainly one of the most original films in years. It saddens me that it simply didn’t speak to me.

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