Note: Grade revised upward on subsequent viewings.

Rushmore may be the funny high school movie for people who can’t abide funny high school movies. Teenager Jason Schwartzman is uncannily credible in the bespectacled persona of Max Fischer, an underachieving overachiever whose priorities are purely extracurricular. Max is attending the prestigious Rushmore Academy on a full academic scholarship (his father is a barber). At Rushmore, he’s founder of the Astronomy Society and the Yankee Racers. He presides over the Rushmore Beekeepers and the French Club, captains the Fencing Team and the Debate Team, and has a yellow belt in the Kung Fu Club. He’s mounted a production of Serpico with the Max Fischer Players. Did I mention the dodgeball team? Trouble is, Max is also a daydreaming girl-chaser whose grades have dipped so low that he’s on the verge of expulsion from his beloved Rushmore.

Max’s attempts to settle down and devote himself to his studies are to no avail. In a digression triggered by a note found scribbled in a library book, Max’s attention is dominated by a pretty schoolteacher, Rosemary Cross. I was going to say that he was smitten by Miss Cross, but it’s to Rushmore’s great credit that teenage lust isn’t expressed in valentine terms. Rather, it’s skewed toward irrationality and backed by a killer soundtrack of rock tunes from the late 60s and early 70s (The Kinks, The Who, Cat Stevens). Even though it’s hard not to identify with him, we’re given enough information about the way Max operates (he becomes mentor to a younger boy as a way of getting close to the kid’s voluptuous mother) to interpret his interest in Rosemary as slightly predatory and a little unbalanced.

Interest becomes obsession, and Max winds up doing great harm to what’s left of his academic career by embarking on ever more complicated overtures toward Rosemary’s good graces. Matters become more complicated when Herman Blume, a local steel magnate whose sons attend Rushmore befriends Max but then falls for Miss Cross himself. Max’s campaign shifts from wooing Rosemary to making life miserable for Herman, with unpredictable results.

The first half of the film is quick-moving, with a rapid-fire editing style and lots of laugh-out-loud moments careening out of left field. The second half slows down a little bit, transforming into a more carefully observed coming-of-age story punctuated by weird stylistic tricks. Director Wes Anderson’s style is refreshingly free of the easy hipness that characterizes too much work from young filmmakers operating in Tarantino mode. What’s more important, it makes sense. When Anderson uses slow motion, it feels like an ironic mythmaking gesture, reinforcing Max’s status as a sort of quirky anti-hero. Even better is Anderson’s pointed but unselfconscious use of the Panavision frame, another trope of “epic” cinema.

All in all, Rushmore is a balancing act between understatement and overstatement, and sometimes I think its flights of fancy work to its detriment. I would have preferred, for instance, that Max’s magnum opus be a little more clever and credible than the explosive Vietnam epic that he winds up presenting in the high school gymnasium. Much more effective than the over-the-top humor are the film’s subtler moments, driven by dialogue and character. The relationship between Max and Miss Cross is both strange and sweet — she’s drawn to his edgy personality, but strives to short-circuit his gawky sexual interest in her. And Bill Murray’s quietly comic performance, variously tinged with self-assurance, desperation and regret, is more than a stunt.

But what matters most is that Max Fischer really is depicted as an insufferable little prick. He’s a stubborn geek with a tenuous grip on his life. At his worst, he’s both stubborn and hurtful, alienating the people closest to him. For all that, it’s impossible not to like him — and there’s the film’s triumph. If you’ve ever looked back on your own adolescence and winced, even a little, you’ll understand where Rushmore’s coming from.

Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson
Cinematography by Robert D. Yoeman
Edited by David Moritz
Music by Mark Mothersbaugh
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams, and Bill Murray
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)

USA, 1998


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