Bottom Line: Humor is the bright spot of this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bill Murray, Brian Cox, Connie Nielsen, Jason Schwartzman, Luke Wilson, Mason Gamble, Olivia Williams, Sara Tanaka, Seymour Cassel, Stephen McCole
Wes Anderson is among the most acclaimed writer-directors still alive, perhaps for more unique reasons than others: his quirky characters and plots that evoke laughter and a deep emotional response. I was skeptical of the director at first, I’ll admit. That was before my experience with his most recent work, Moonrise Kingdom. It would take a mighty fine film to nudge that masterpiece down to my #2 spot for the year. Rushmore is easily one of Anderson’s most acclaimed pictures, with a highly populous cult following and a number of critics practically bowing down to it. I have quite a lot of trouble saying I could ever put my finger on the grandeur that must make this such a memorable picture for just about everyone else. On one hand, it owns the spontaneous ability to make an audience laugh out loud. On another, it fits in between Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind, in the fashion it dresses up so smart so as to get exuberant praise–every misstep overlooked.
Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a fifteen-year-old scholarship student attending Rushmore Academy, a school his now-deceased mother had wanted him to go for over half a decade. He is very ambitious and successful with extracurricular clubs–essentially his only reason for living–but in no way scholarly. He ends up failing just about every test he lays eyes on. Funny, because what was his mother’s rationale for him to attend the school? A sublime one-act play he had written about the Watergate scandal back in second grade. It’s difficult to believe there is any second grader on this Earth who knows enough about Watergate to name the most notable figure involved, but on top of that, he still proves a prolifically talented playwright, he has spent much of his time fighting for his say in the fate of the school’s Latin program, and his everyday speech is impressively implemented. Even at the toughest private high school, you’d expect a bright adolescent like Max would either receive barely passing grades or become subject to expulsion as soon as possible. It takes quite a while, and the reason for his expulsion has no remote relation to his horrific school habits. It’s related to one of his recurring attempts to impress an elementary school teacher whom he has met, found common interests, and fallen in love with. At first, it’s amusing to watch such scenes, which evolve from him trying to impress her, to him rivaling with an adult man (Bill Murray) over “who gets who”, despite the fact that she takes interest in neither one. Then we begin to realize how severely Max undergoes a break in character, suddenly changing from a mature, respectable young adult into a puerile, obnoxiously persistent moron. His character, from then on, is particularly difficult to enjoy.
Rushmore does have a bit of aptitude in the comedic area. The script, albeit painfully unrealistic, was co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, who also worked as a screenwriting duo for Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums. Although Wilson’s humorous style is far different and more variant when he is an onscreen comic (he’s played prominently in Starsky & Hutch, Marley and Me, and Midnight in Paris), the setup offered in the script itself is quite a hoot; starting out, we see the perfect assessment of quirk. How unfortunate that circa thirty minutes later, the characters have become the result of an obsessive toying with exaggerated personalities traits. It’s mind-numbing and confusing. In slight digression, the film clocks in at 90 minutes–credits exclusive–and nearly fifteen of those minutes aren’t very necessary at all. The film could have ended far better at the 75-minute mark, at which point the plot’s steam is barely hissing away. The additional quarter hour is a failing attempt at trying to construct a cathartic epilogue. Had Max Fischer not been ruined so much, it would have been successful, but we simply don’t care about his story any longer. Now the steam is chugging profusely. Only that ending I would go as far to call a waste of time; the rest, a mere pseudo-intellectual misadventure.