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From the DVD Shelf: Rushmore (1998)

Although I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson, somehow I had only seen Rushmore — the film that broke him through to a larger audience — one single time.  I saw it on VHS back in 1999 or 2000.  I didn’t know a thing about Wes Anderson at the time, I just knew it was a Bill Murray comedy that had been well-reviewed when it came out.  But since my idea of a great Bill Murray comedy was something like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day, I was totally unprepared for Rushmore.  I didn’t like it at all.

Thinking back on it, I think the problem was that I was expecting a totally different kind of movie.  I didn’t know quite what to make of Mr. Anderson’s little film.  It was a much more somber, sad film than anything I would readily describe as a “comedy.”  I do remember laughing at a few points — particularly the mid-movie montage in which Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman’s characters try to destroy one another — but those moments were few and far between.  It also probably didn’t help that I was watching the movie on a tiny little TV screen, late at night when I was exhausted.

For years now I’ve been thinking that I really should go back and revisit Rushmore.  It’s GOT to be a better film than I remember it being, I thought!  After watching Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, last year (click here for my review), I was all set to re-watch Rushmore.  But somehow, months passed, and I never got to it.

But last month, finally, I did!

As I expected, I thought much, much more highly of Rushmore this time.  I still think that The Royal Tenenbaums is far and away Wes Anderson’s greatest film (though The Fantastic Mr Fox certainly would give it a run for its money — click here for my review of that film), but I quite enjoyed Rushmore, and I can see why it was such a critical darling upon its release in 1998.

Jason Schwartzman turns in a star-making performance as the Max Fischer — an overachiever who has founded countless school clubs and written and directed a series incredibly elaborate plays but who, nevertheless, is in danger of flunking out of Rushmore Academy.  Max strikes up a friendship with Herman Blume (Bill Murray) a rich local businessman who finds that he likes the eccentric Max far more than his own “popular” sons.  The two men are both lost and lonely, and they’re able to find deep common ground between them, despite their age difference.  That is, until they both fall in love with the same woman: a teacher at Rushmore, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).  Then they decide that they must destroy each other.

Rushmore was Jason Schwartzman’s first film, and it’s easy to see how this film jump-started his career.  He’s quite remarkable as Max, giving the character an intelligence behind his years while never letting us forget that Max is still a young kid who, for all of his brash confidence, is pretty naive in the ways of the world.  Bill Murray, on the other hand, is equally as remarkable playing the opposite side of the spectrum.  I don’t recall Bill Murray ever before playing OLD the way he did in Rushmore.  He brings a great depth of world-weariness to Herman Blume, though we can see — through the twinkle in his eye when he interacts with Max — that this broken-down man is still a kid at heart.

Then there is Olivia Williams, who is just spectacular as the object of both men’s desires.  Ms. Williams was probably the best thing about Joss Whedon’s cancelled TV series Dollhouse, and ever since that show I feel like I’ve been seeing her pop up all over the place in films that I’ve been watching.  She was in The Ghost Writer (click here for my review), she was in An Education (click here for my review), and I hadn’t realized, until re-watching it, that she was in Rushmore.  She’s terrific in the film, gentle but with a toughness to her as well.  This could have very easily been a flat role — just the object of lust for the two main male characters — but Ms. Williams brings real life to Rosemary.  (It helps that Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson took the time, in their script, to flesh out her personality and her back-story.)

The other stand-out in the film is Seymour Cassel as Max’s barber father.  It’s a small role, but a critical one.  It’s great seeing Mr. Cassel on screen again, and he brings an enormous amount of warmth and dignity to the character.  His very presence grounds and humanizes Max, helping the audience to connect with the brash, outspoken young man.

The basic plot of this film — a young man and an old man are both in love with the same woman — could have been played just for laughs, but Mr. Anderson and his collaborators have, thankfully, created a film that is much more interesting than that.  Rushmore is funny at times, but overall I found it to be a sad, nuanced little film.  Despite its somewhat outlandish premise and situations, the story and its characters are surprisingly human.  I’m really happy to have given Rushmore a second chance, and I look forward to watching it again soon.

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