Did you know that “twee” has a definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary? The definition even uses the sample sentence “The movie was a bit too twee for my tastes,” which I find funny as I first encountered the word in reviews of hopelessly saccharine independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine. I would not say that Wes Anderson is the father of the super-twee independent film, but watching his 1998 effort Rushmore suggested that he might be its stepfather, or maybe its crazy uncle.
Rushmore is the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, all of 17 at the time of filming), a student at the Rushmore Academy. Max seems smart enough, but he is flunking out of school because he devotes all of his time to extra-cirricular activities, from alternate on the wrestling team to president of the Beekeepers’ Club to writer and director of the Max Fischer Players drama club. He develops a teenage crush on a Rushmore teacher (the impossibly British Olivia Williams), thereby putting himself in conflict with a local businessman (Bill Murray, never better) who falls for her as well.
I skipped Rushmore at the time it came out in theaters, in part because the plot descriptions that I had read did not emphasize just how funny this movie is. Max’s extreme precociousness, his desire to act like he knows everything even in situations where an adult has him outclassed in both knowledge and experience, makes for a lot of laughs. Hell, I would have watched a whole movie just about the insanely elaborate dramatic stylings of the Max Fischer Players, whose first play is an adaptation of Serpico.
There was a big push to get Murray an Oscar nomination for his performance, which didn’t pan out. It actually doesn’t surprise me too much, because while he’s great in the movie, there was never any one moment where I was blown away. In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth blew me away in the scene where he stuttered through his daughters’ bedtime story, and there was no one scene in Rushmore where I had an equivalent “Wow!” feeling. Murray might have suffered a bit from the sort of story that Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson are trying to tell. It’s like a children’s story: once upon a time, there was a boy who tried to do everything. But it’s pretty rare that any one actor in a fairy-tale type of movie amazes you, especially with a supporting character.
One aspect of Rushmore that I didn’t like so much is that, unlike most fairy tales, its moral is not so clear. In almost every fairy tale a character realizes he was wrong, even if only briefly, like Goldilocks before the bears eat her. Nobody in this movie really confronts his wrongness, maybe because it would break the image that Anderson and Wilson built up in their minds about the characters they created. As the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about the film, “the filmmakers became so smitten with their characters that they got carried away, much as the characters themselves get carried away with their infatuations.”
However, that doesn’t stop Rushmore from working as a great, great comedy, one of the funniest movies of the 1990s. Max Fischer is a terrific comic creation, because he’s not just a unique character but a unique type of character. There are plenty of comic characters out there who have a ton of power, and develop so much self-confidence that they are ignorant of their own buffoonery. Guys like John Belushi, Tim Allen, and Will Ferrell built careers on the backs of such characters. But Max Fischer has a comical amount of self-confidence from a position of no power at all. He simply asserts it, and spreads it to the characters around him, and then they would make me laugh too. That, more than any other aspect of this movie, is what charmed me.
Reviewed by Mark Young