Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rushmore: Wes Anderson's Early Work Proves He Is Not A One-Trick Pony!

The Good: Funny, Quirky, Intense characters, Decent acting
The Bad: Some pacing issues, Light on DVD bonus features
The Basics: An ambitious movie by Wes Anderson, Rushmore explores a few months in the life of an overachiever and his adult friends.

Sometimes, one of the nice things about encountering the works of an artist in any medium later than their initial offerings is that it gives one perspective when going back to look at their earlier works. As someone who found an appreciation for the works of writer-director Wes Anderson with his film The Royal Tenenbaums (reviewed here!) I have had mixed feelings about some of his subsequent works. I was both eager and afraid to take in his works prior to The Royal Tenenbaums because I while I loved that movie, I was beginning to fear that he truly was a one-trick pony. If that movie was derivative of one of his earlier movies, I feared it would be less brilliant in retrospect. So, when a coworker at my previous Job From Hell highly recommended Rushmore, I finally decided to pick it up.

Rushmore is one of two movies Wes Anderson wrote and directed before The Royal Tenenbaums and I am quite pleased to say that it is quite a different film in form and story, if not in cast. Actually, the most intense difference between Rushmore and every other Wes Anderson film I have seen is in mood. Rushmore is a much more active movie and while Anderson holds on significant moments of awkwardness, the movie does not belabor those emotions. Instead, there is the feeling that the director is kept on a shorter leash (or is keeping himself on that leash) and it works to keep the movie generally moving at a pretty decent pace. And while the characters are consumed with the somewhat typical Wes Anderson sense of melancholy and misery, the movie does not seem overcome by the mood, instead it clips along feeling funny and fresh instead of oppressive.

Max Fischer is a fifteen year-old student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy, a private school that sets rich students up for success in the future. Having written a play at a young age and won a scholarship there, Max has spent years devoting himself to the institution by creating various clubs and causes to keep himself occupied, even at the expense of his academic achievement. Accompanied by the student he mentors, Dirk Calloway, Max follows a note written in a library book back to a young new first grade teacher.

Obviously smitten, Max befriends Miss Cross, a widow at the same time he befriends the eccentric and disenchanted businessman Herman Blume. Max and Blume begin ambitious plans to build an aquarium at Rushmore, but soon their plans go awry when Max is expelled for his failing grades and Herman falls in love with Rosemary. Max, furious about losing both Cross and his place at Rushmore initiates a war with Herman that pits them against one another for the heart of the (mostly) indifferent Rosemary Cross.

Rushmore is remarkably intelligent and remarkably silly at the same time. Indeed, it is the combination of these two things that makes the movie something truly special to watch. Blume gets Max's attention when he advocates violent overthrow of the rich at a speech at Rushmore and Max's attention to detail in regard to that earns him Blume's respect. As Max struggles to find his path, Herman takes Max under his wing and offers him a position at his company. In this way, we see a somewhat absurd mix of the practical (man recognizing a brilliant youth) and the absurd (that said businessman would put so much faith in a fifteen year-old). But more than that, the depressed and disappointed Blume soon latches on to Rosemary in a way that does not so much reinvigorate him as give him a purpose. Maligned by his annoying children, Herman is sympathetic and when he falls for Rosemary, the viewer desperately hopes he might actually develop a spine and some happiness.

The resulting war between Max and Herman is ridiculous and high comedy. Both the boy and the man engage in tactics that are brutal to try to crush the other and there are moments, when Herman is safe, where it is clear he envies the imagination of the boy. Max and Herman make as good of adversaries in the middle of Rushmore as they make friends in the film's beginning and it is a pleasure to see something so funny, clever and well-conceived.

In other words, the characters work and the object of the affection of the two men, Rosemary Cross is deeply sympathetic as well. Cross is a smart person and it is refreshing to see a young woman who is portrayed as intelligent enough to recognize the obvious crush Max has on her from the beginning. Moreover, that she addresses it so forthrightly in the beginning gives her a spunk and intrigue that make her worth watching.

Wes Anderson is given a difficult task with Herman Blume, though, and it establishes both his obsession with melancholy characters and his utilizing actor Bill Murray in each of his films. Anderson saw the dramatic potential within Murray quite early on and while others would use it and use it well, it is hard to believe they would have gotten all they could out of Murray were it not for Anderson preparing both the actor and the audience. Herman Blume has to be a man who could believably put his faith and his money in Max and the mix of the character's boredom with corporate America, his desire for Miss Cross and his appreciation of the way Max's mind works all come together to make for a surprisingly believable character.

As it stands, the characters are interesting and Anderson's ability to keep things moving prevents the viewer from ever being mired in Blume's melancholy too long and that works quite well for the film. Rushmore does not lag, though there are moments where the viewer wonders where it is going. Because it is a Wes Anderson movie, the viewer is asked to have a little faith and - despite the two failures I've endured of his - Anderson makes good on that faith. I am left wondering how those who did not have confidence in the writer-director would have made it through the movie initially, but truth be told, the movie works and while it does not so much have a resolution that is satisfying, it remains true to itself and remains largely original. In fact, in the last few years of watching everything I could get my hands on that was different, the only movie even remotely similar to Rushmore that I've encountered is Ghost World.

Part of what makes Rushmore work so well is that Wes Anderson keeps the story focused on the three primary characters. Indeed, I do not believe that there is a single scene that does not have some combination of Max, Herman and/or Rosemary. The characters are well represented and the story is rounded out well with a supplemental cast of actors like Brian Cox, Seymour Cassel, and Luke Wilson. But the three principles rock the film and keep it fresh.

Olivia Williams plays Rosemary Cross and I will admit that when I first saw her, my impression was that she was just going to be another Hollywood-beautiful face on screen. Rushmore is the only thing - to date - that I have seen Williams in and I am quite pleased to say I was wrong about my first impression. She plays Cross as serious, practical and surprisingly substantial given how little air time she has on screen.

Bill Murray makes a dramatic performance that rivals his surprise greatness in Cradle Will Rock (reviewed here!). He is subtle and quiet, never begging for the laugh. Instead, Murray presents a fearless melancholy in Blume that could be stifling were it not for the moments the actor explodes open his eyes and makes a bold proclamation. Murray's challenge - which he easily meets - is to make those moments seem like they are within characters and he does that quite effectively.

But it is actor Jason Schwartzman who is called upon to carry Rushmore. I liked Schwartzman for his supporting performance in the underrated Jersey Girl where he at least made an impression. Here, he makes one rethink the notion that directors should avoid young actors. He comes to the role with a serious intensity that makes the viewer unquestioningly believe in the reality of Max Fisher. His performance is subtle enough that he clearly establishes his damage well before Fisher speaks the lines of his pain to Blume. Schwartzman is almost the straightman of this weird comedy and he does that well.

On DVD, Rushmore is a little light on DVD extras for my tastes. There is a trailer for the movie and that is about it. Given how this movie appears to have launched Wes Anderson's popularity, it would have been nice to get a commentary track and/or deleted scenes. No such luck, though.

As it stands, Rushmore is a surprisingly good dramedy that creates a quirky character, develops a strange love triangle and makes a war between two people on the fringe of society that is engaging for all audiences.

For other works with Brian Cox, be sure to check out my review of:
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
X-2: X-Men United
The 25th Hour
The Ring
The Bourne Identity


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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