Be True to Your School and to Yourself: ‘Rushmore’

Blume: What’s the secret, Max?

Max: I think you have to find something that you love to do and then do that for the rest of your life. For me, that’s going to Rushmore.

Reissued by Criterion in Blu-ray format, Wes Anderson’s 1998 masterpiece, Rushmore excels on many levels. It’s a sharply observed coming-of-age film, a hilarious fish-out-of-water farce, and a bittersweet tale of unrequited love. Yet the film is more than the sum of its parts, loosely based on Anderson’s own adolescence as a budding playwright at an exclusive prep school.

Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is an unflappable nerd with a knack for forging unlikely friendships, pulling people of all ages and classes into his zany orbit. He’s the president of Rushmore’s beekeeper club, editor of the school newspaper, wrestling team trainer and megaphone-wielding cheerleader.

Despite being a playwright who stages his own productions (via the Max Fischer Players), Max is flunking out of school:

Dr. Guggenheim: Max, we’re putting you on academic probation. If you flunk another class, you’ll have to leave Rushmore.

Max: If this means I have to stay on for a post-graduate year, then so be it.

Dr. Guggenheim: Rushmore doesn’t offer a post-graduate year.

Max: Well…we don’t offer a post-graduate year yet.

Adding to Max’s trouble is the lovely new teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Max’s friendship with a wealthy Rushmore parent, Herman Blume (Bill Murray), sets the stage for a particularly vicious yet comical love triangle.

Anderson’s virtuosity is easier to experience than describe. His collaboration with music director Mark Mothersbaugh produces several moments of cinematic grace. Within a plot framework of two men in love with an unattainable young woman, crucial emotional moments are scored with pop songs of the ’60s and ’70s. Anderson’s pitch-perfect alchemy of cinematography and music creates a kaleidoscope of indelible images, and gives birth to Anderson’s own auteur signature–an evocative, emotionally transformative cinematic vision.

After Max is expelled from Rushmore and enters public school, his world shifts into monochrome. The autumn colors of the Rushmore campus are replaced by the sepia tones of a public institution. This adolescent fall from grace, scored by the Rolling Stones “I Am Waiting” packs an emotional wallop.

With homespun sorcery, Anderson unreels these moments time and again at critical junctures in the film. Max’s rapprochement with Blume, who’s just been dumped by Rosemary, is scored with Cat Stevens’ “The Wind”. It’s another brilliant set piece and Murray has never been better in any role. His depiction of the emotionally devastated Blume rings true—you sense a man at the end of his tether.

Max: I thought I’d give you one of my Rushmore pins…would you like attendance or punctuality?

Blume: I’ll go with punctuality.

What’s really being offered here is renewed friendship, renewed trust. It’s a genuinely moving exchange between two quirky, kindred spirits.

Dave Kehr’s essay on the film describes Max as an American dreamer in the tradition of Twain’s Huck Finn. “Max is representative of all artists who use their work to arrange their world. His school play is his way of reintegrating a whole range of broken friendships and incidental enmities into a balanced community.”

Rushmore reminds us of the ache of the adolescent broken heart. With its backstory of Max’s early loss of his mother, everything that follows flows from that childhood trauma—from Max’s hopeless attraction to the older Rosemary to his desire to be a playwright, banging out play after play from an old typewriter that his mother gave him.

When Max finally comes to terms with both Rosemary and Blume, only then does he realize the potential for future happiness. Anderson reveals how love and loss defines us, how estrangement dehumanizes us, and how reconciliation and acceptance finally redeems us.

Henry James once defined art as ‘felt life’, and that’s exactly what Anderson achieves in Rushmore. His characters come vividly alive and that’s no small thing. We’re keenly aware of their emotional pain and the stakes involved. What begins as a coming-of-age comedy turns into something more important: a deep understanding of the human condition.

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Rushmore includes a crystalline video transfer in 2.35:1 aspect ratio and a clean 5.1 DTS audio track. Extras include cast auditions, director’s commentary, and the Max Fischer Players ‘adaptations’ of Armageddon,Out of Sight, and The Truman Show. Also included is Dave Kehr’s insightful essay, “The Play’s the Thing”.

RATING 10 / 10