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Wes Anderson Retrospective: Rushmore (1998)

Wes Anderson does Ferris Bueller in this coming-of-age comedic farce which sees teenage genius Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman) take on friend-turned-rival and local millionaire businessman Harold Blume (Bill Murray) for the affection of the charming primary school teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). Cowritten alongside Owen Wilson, the film is loosely autobiographical, drawing from both Anderson’s and Wilson’s time spent at preparatory school (Anderson’s alma mater St. John’s features as the fictional Rushmore). It also marks the beginning of a longstanding director-actor collaboration between Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, with the latter participating in all subsequent works of the director to date.

The film centres around impossible teenage sensation Max Fischer – the founder or president of just about every extracurricular club imaginable at his prestigious prep school, Rushmore. Just like Anderson, Fischer writes and directs plays in his spare time, but struggles to keep his head above water academically. The son of a local barber, Max enjoys the perks of attendance at Rushmore thanks to a scholarship granted on the premise that he maintains a certain level of academic performance – something he is failing to do given his extracurricular caseload.

Rushmore directed by Wes Anderson. 1998

The plot largely begins when Max stumbles upon an inscription inside a library book titled “Diving for Sunken Treasure” by Jacques Yves Cousteau (both the book and its author to be revisited by Anderson as the main inspiration behind his 2004 feature film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”). The inscription:

“When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself” – Jacques Yves Cousteau

Max quickly traces the source back to the charming, erudite and recently widowed primary school teacher, Rosemary Cross – who he promptly falls for.

As one would expect given their significant age difference, Rosemary constantly rebuffs Max’s advances. Max, however, remains steadfast in his pursuit and the two develop an awkward friendship. Post the successful staging of his new play “Serpico”, Max introduces Rosemary to friend and resident depressive millionaire, Harold Blume. Unbeknownst to Max, a relationship blossoms between the two, which of course is eventually uncovered much to Max’s chagrin. What evolves is an Anderson-esque “all’s fair in love and war” tit-for-tat between Max and Harold, eventually cumulating in Max’s acceptance of Rosemary’s rejection, his orchestration of Harold and Rosemary’s reconciliation, and the development of a new romantic interest with fellow child prodigy, Margaret Yang.

Rushmore directed by Wes Anderson. 1998

Despite being Anderson’s second film, the screenplay dates back to before the release of his debut film “Bottle Rocket” (1996). Much of what will become the director’s future trademarks are on display, including many of his recuring collaborators as well as the director’s specific brand of deadpan/offbeat humour. What it lacks, however, is the rich colour palette and intricate set designs that feature so prevalently in his later works. Here, we witness an Anderson still perfecting his craft, not yet the master of all his faculties.

The film gets a lot of things right such as a tight run time and soundtrack that manages to capture the mood. In a couple of spots however, it manages to fall flat on its face, most notably in the scene where Max fakes an injury to gain access to Rosemary’s house. Why, at this point in the film Rosemary would believe anything Max has to say is beyond me, and Max’s need to “try it on” one last time seems unrealistic and flies in the face of his character development to date. This scene could have been cut and the movie would be the stronger for it. That said, the plot is hardly this film’s strong point, and lacks any sort of central message. Still, it’s driven by a strong and likable cast of characters and manages to deliver on its promise of comedic entertainment. Rushmore manages to be a charming, witty and distinctly high-brow experience, well worth the price of admission.

Rushmore directed by Wes Anderson. 1998

Ultimately, I’d recommend Rushmore to those who appreciate Wes’ particular flavour of quirky comedy. Whilst it lacks the magic dollhouse feel of some of Anderson’s later works, it stands on its own as an entry in the auteur’s oeuvre. Go in knowing you’re unlikely to be disappointed, but you might not be as blown away as you think either. Rushmore is like a good entrée; tasty in its own right, but also a sign of better things to come.

3.5 / 5