If you are ever flipping channels and you start watching a film that has already started, it shouldn’t take you too long to realize you are watching a Wes Anderson film. Rushmore (1998), his second feature film, has him finding his groove. It is filled with his signature symmetrical compositions, flat space camera moves, quirky and dry humour, and beautiful art direction. It is also Anderson’s first collaboration with the great Bill Murray, with whom he would work again on every one of his movies. Could there be an alternate universe in which these two have worked on Ghostbusters 3?
The first Wes Anderson movie I ever saw was his third, The Royal Tenenbaums, which can be a bit jarring if you are not used to his style. Everyone can agree he has topped himself with 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel by not only delivering a beautiful and funny film, but showing us there is a great comedian within the master of villains that is Ralph Fiennes. Since Rushmore is set in a school there is probably no better place to watch it than with fellow students at a school campus, which is what I did by the time I got to it around 2009 while at the University of Sherbrooke with members of the film club. Given the many extracurricular activities Max Fisher, the film’s protagonist, organizes I imagine he would have been proud of us.
Fisher (Jason Schwartzman, another frequent Anderson collaborator) is a student of the prestigious Rushmore Academy in Houston. Judging by the way he presents himself you would think he is one of the top students there. He is well spoken, ambitious, confident, and very organized since he is in charge of many after-school clubs, from the debate team to the Rushmore beekeepers. The problem is he spends so much time on those various clubs he ends up spending very little time doing actual schoolwork, making him one of the worst students in the school and a major thorn in the backside of school headmaster Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox).
Max’s personality attracts the attention of Herman Blume, an industrialist who has two boys at the academy, but since they are both spoiled brats he finds an unlikely friend in the young Max. Given the way Max constantly tries to behave like an adult it is not surprising he would strike a friendship with a person old enough to be his dad. The next logical step is of course for Max to fall in love with an older woman, even worse a teacher at the school.
The teacher in question, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), tolerates Max’s affections for a while, but lets him know things could never work out between them. Things could however work out between Rosemary and Herman, even if Herman is married, which is when the film takes a turn into somewhat slapstick territory. Upon finding out his friend is dating the woman he loves, Max declares war by putting bees in his office, and Herman retaliates by running over Max’s bike. The adult man and the schoolboy go from having an adult friendship to fighting like a couple of teenagers.
Rushmore takes you by surprise because you never know what to expect. Max acts like the smartest and most mature kid in school, but of course he comes to realize he just a kid after all. You do not expect a restrained performance from Bill Murray, especially not in the 1990s when his biggest movies were Groundhog Day, Kingpin, and Space Jam. Yet here he plays a cynical man going through a mid-life crisis who chugs a glass of whisky before jumping into a dirty pool while wearing Budweiser swimming trunks and smoking a cigarette.
For Murray Rushmore was the indication he had a bright future in independent films delivering nuanced performances as flawed human beings. For Anderson it was the beginning of many great collaborations and a big step forward in him defining his signature style as one of the best filmmakers working today.