Sunday, January 25, 2009
There's an undeniable joy to Rushmore, which seems even stranger when you consider what a bleak portrait it ultimately paints. This is a standard theme of Wes Anderson's work of course, but his other films do not give off such a false sense of hope. Anderson also deals with wunderkinds who never seem to live up to their potential, and Max Fischer is ground zero for such characters. Yet for all the film's innate charm, Rushmore never manages to bring its many conflicting ideals together into a satisfying whole, and remains more a passably fun rainy day film than the classic some make it out to be.
Jason Schwartzman plays Max, a 15-year old in his final year at the prestigious Rushmore Academy. Fischer is either a member or the founder of every extracurricular activity on campus, but his grades are slipping. I assume this is a new development, since we know his age and, last time I checked, 15 is not quite the normal age of graduation, meaning he skipped a few grades. Eventually his grades slide so much that his headmaster (played by Brian Cox) tells him that he'll fail unless something changes.
Soon afterwards, Max sits in the school chapel to listen to a guest speaker, Herman Blume (Bill Murray), and becomes inspired by Blume's frank advice. Then, he meets the new first grade teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), and develops an immediate crush. Cross recently lost her husband, and Max brings up the subject of his deceased mother. "I guess we both have dead people in our families."
This simple line says more about the character than just about the rest of the film. Max, clearly a gifted child, suddenly starts flunking all of his classes and slyly inquires about staying on for "a postgraduate year" of high school. When Blume remarks that Max seems to "have it all figured out," Max replies with a smile, "I think you just gotta find something you love to do, and then do it for the rest of your life." For Max, he says, it's Rushmore. But it's really his childhood. Max sees Ms. Cross as an object of desire, yes, but he simply wants a woman in his life.
Of course, Cross can see that Max is obsessed, and even if she didn't, he makes it painfully clear in an amusing dinner scene, and lets him down. Meanwhile, Blume tries to mediate between the two, but ultimately falls for Cross and the two begin an affair. Blume naturally falls for Cross because he's a essentially the future version of Max, while Cross falls for Blume because she actually has a lot in common with the lad, and Blume represents a more age-appropriate version of Max.
Here's where the film loses focus. Anderson, always so whimsical, crafts an absolutely nonsensical subplot involving this love triangle, in which Max's young friend Dirk actually stops Blume's car to chastise the old man for betraying his friend (Max), Max destroys Blume's marriage in vengeance, and Blume runs over Max's bike in reprisal. In a movie that wasn't making such a serious point about an unwillingness or even an incapacity to grow up this might have been a gay romp; here, however, it seems as out of place as the original ending to Dr. Strangelove.
Anderson and writing partner Owen Wilson introduce a number of side-stories and styles, but the chief tone of the film is a regressive one. Max moves predominantly to the left in the film, signalling a desire to avoid the future; he wants to go back to a time when his mom was alive and things seemed right. Even when Max isn't moving, he tends to rest to the left of the frame. He constantly attempts to assert a sense of dominance, yet always places himself in the subordinate position. Blume, who slightly resents Max because he sees so much of himself in the boy and it only magnifies his regret, also moves regressively, perhaps in a futile attempt to go back to his childhood and change things. For him, the younger Cross brings him closer to that goal. Meanwhile, Cross clearly (and understandably) continues to mourn her husband, yet she barely moves at all. She's at a crossroads in life, unable to move backwards because she knows the pain that such movements really bring, yet she cannot move forward out of guilt.
At some point, Anderson must bring all the disparate elements together, and frankly he can't. After the conflict between the characters reaches a head, everyone finally can move forward in their lives, yet for some reason Anderson leaves us with a hint of ambiguity regarding Max's relationship with Rosemary. Some of the more absurd moments are simply left by the wayside, though I don't know how Anderson could have tied them in. The final scene at the wrap party demonstrates Anderson's skill, but it nevertheless feels hollow.
I read Ebert's review long ago, where he rightly pointed out that the Max Fischer we get will grow up to be Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of the dated comedy The Graduate, but Anderson and Wilson could have easily turned him into a future Charles Foster Kane. That's why the film never really rises above its various scenes to make a great film; it so clearly should be a more serious affair, but loses itself in farce. Nevertheless, it is funny enough to warrant repeat viewings, and I'd rank it the second finest of the director's work after The Royal Tenenbaums, but Rushmore remains more a dizzying collection of occasionally fun and occasionally deep scenes designed to show off Anderson's obvious love of the nouvelle vague rather than tell a story.
[side note- As much as I criticize the film for not taking its material more seriously, the Criterion extra of Max's company performing Armageddon is maybe the funniest two minute clip ever.]