***½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Mason Gamble
screenplay by Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson
directed by Wes Anderson
by Angelo Muredda It's hard to talk about Wes Anderson these days without addressing the prevailing image of him among detractors as a precious aesthete who makes dioramas instead of movies. So let's start there. As with most shorthand characterizations of idiosyncratic artists who carve out a niche for themselves instead of diversifying, there's some truth to the charge: Mr. Fox didn't accidentally wear the same corduroy blazer as his director, and surely Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman didn't just frame themselves in the centre of the screen for the train-bound section of The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson, for his part, has owned up to his formal indulgences. On the audio commentary for Criterion's excellent edition of Rushmore, he admits sheepishly that the film's multi-ethnic, age-ranging rainbow coalition of players are basically clear types pulled from colour-coded storybooks--the sort of people you could get an easy sense of simply by drawing.
It's nice to see such critical self-awareness, but Anderson is short-changing the humane work he does, along with frequent co-writer Wilson. To be sure, his characters are defined in broad strokes--Charles M. Schulz seems an inspiration, given his ensemble's definitive, easily recognizable costumes--but there's also a niggling ambiguity to their actions that throws this cartoony style in crisis. Think, for instance, of the moment in The Darjeeling Limited where Wilson's exaggeratedly-bandaged character points to a trio of teenagers about to suffer a terrible accident and callously says, "Look at these assholes." Realism might not be the governing logic, but it's always threatening to puncture through, lying somewhere underneath those carefully dressed bandages.
While Rushmore is not, for my money, Anderson's best (The Royal Tenenbaums is both a more complex and a sharper distillation of his aesthetic), it's his most exciting in terms of how it oscillates between this intensely stylized world and the spontaneity of characters who don't seem to know its rules. A coming-of-age story following a turbulent semester in the life of Max Fischer (Schwartzman, terrific in his screen debut), one of the titular private school's worst but most active students, Rushmore is at its most unpredictable when its self-assured and seemingly fully-formed protagonist comes up against people who don't share his perspective. "What's the secret?" a depressed steel tycoon and eventual confidante named Herman Blume (Bill Murray) asks Max, amazed that he has a clear life-plan and a dozen ventures to his name before he's turned sixteen. One of the joys of the picture is watching these two interact and feed off each other's energy. Around Blume, a self-made success and Rushmore donor who advises poorer students to "take dead aim" on the rich kids, Max--a barber's son who claims his dad's a neurosurgeon--visibly brightens, his confidence becoming more tangible and less like empty showboating. Here, at last, is a real-world model of lowborn success in someone with demonstrably less imagination than himself; suddenly, his erstwhile dreams of becoming a senator don't seem so unlikely. Blume, meanwhile, sees a serial bullshitter and a visionary in his young friend. When Max pitches a $30,000 project to him, Blume feigns serious consideration before granting a still generous but less insane $2500. You don't want to disappoint people like Max too deeply.
Murray is very moving here, giving the first in a string of fine dramatic performances that would make him a muse in his silver age to icy cool directors like Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola. He's a great listener, and Anderson gets a lot of mileage out of watching him try to get a read on Max. There's a lovely moment early in their friendship where Blume is about to buy them both popcorn and Max eagerly throws down his bill first, saying, "I got this one." Murray registers this gesture, smartly underplayed by Schwartzman, with a wry smile, seeing it not as an aggressive bit of one-upmanship but as a touching failed performance of wealth from someone who has never had it. He's even more affecting in his later scenes, after a romantic miscarriage throws him into a tailspin and he forgets his age. "I'm a little bit lonely these days," he admits when Max inquires, as if he's speaking to a more ambitious colleague who couldn't possibly understand failure.
As great as Murray is, it's Olivia Williams as Max's and later Blume's love interest Miss Cross who pushes Max farthest out of his comfort zone, disrupting the film's fussy presentation and cutting through its energetic but relentless montages set to British invasion staples like The Kinks. An elementary school teacher who Max takes an instant liking to upon finding her wistful annotation in a library book, Miss Cross is mired in her own belated adolescent crisis, mourning for her recently-deceased husband and childhood sweetheart Edward Appleby--a former Rushmore student. The screenplay lays it on a bit thick in depicting Max as a spiritual reincarnation of Appleby, captain of the bee-keeping society his predecessor founded and so on, but Williams is deft in the impossible role of a woman who effectively sees her husband's ghost, preserved in his youth, whenever she looks on this teenaged would-be paramour. You sense that for all her primness, she gets a perverse kick out of this outré kid and wants to see him safely through to adulthood. But her protectiveness, and the film's, only goes so far: when he oversteps his boundaries, she shoves him, pushing him to drop his euphemisms and articulate his painfully naïve sexual fantasies about her. Max shrinks into himself like a turtle, and Robert Yeoman's camera scrambles to follow their halting steps in, of all places, a kindergarten classroom. The off-kilter composition we end up with nicely encapsulates Rushmore's waltz between the formalism of Max's (and by extension, Anderson's) inner world and the messier adult world with which he has to keep pace. As Max says in an earlier, more innocent moment, "C'est la vie."
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion upgrades Rushmore to Blu-ray in 1080p, keeping its 2:35:1 aspect ratio. An odd note on the back of the case, absent from the 2000 DVD, calls this a "digital transfer of the director's cut," but as there are no visible changes in the film itself and no follow-up notes anywhere within the packaging, I have no idea what, if anything, makes this version different from the theatrical release. In any case, a quick comparison with the already-strong DVD reveals a much sharper presentation overall, as well as a number of subtle improvements in debris clean-up, especially in close-ups. Details like the lint on Brian Cox's tweed blazer are faithfully rendered. Most impressive is the newly rich colour palette: contrast the popping red in the stained-glass window during Blume's chapel speech with the dull wine-coloured choir book Max is scribbling in. The soundtrack, remastered at 24-bit in 5.1 DTS-HD MA, likewise impresses with its crispness, range, and depth. Action is still mostly anchored in the front channels, but Max's bombastic plays make dynamic use of the entire soundstage, as do the frequent British Invasion tunes. Quieter moments like Blume's and Max's conference at the cemetery with the distant trace of someone burning leaves in the background are also rendered nicely.
The decent but not terribly impressive extras are ported over mostly intact, in standard definition, from Criterion's DVD, except for the "Archiva Graphica," which weirdly only has a couple of sketches and a commissioned concept poster by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert; the deeper gallery is scrapped. Other than that, the usual suspects are on offer, including lighter fare like an auditions reel, running just over eight-and-a-half minutes. Schwartzman gets most of the running time, and it's a testament to Anderson's direction of his actors that we see his star interpreting Max in a completely different, not necessarily strong way before production: he's more unhinged, less vulnerable. Next up is a series of Anderson-directed promotional shorts made for 1999's MTV Movie Awards (hosted by Lisa Kudrow!), in which the Max Fischer Players interpret nominees The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight. Running about a minute each, these are inspired precursors to Michel Gondry's "sweded" films.
On the production side of things, we get a useless 17-minute EPK entitled "The Making of Rushmore", directed by Anderson's younger brother, Eric. Mostly this consists of Eric reading out the IMDb-listed credits of the cast and crew he catches at work, but it ends on a nice note, with Murray taking the younger Anderson under his wing in the makeup room on his last day and proposing they shave their heads together in solidarity. We also get a 2-minute storyboard comparison of the opening dream sequence, but I found this more confusing than illuminating: instead of letting us view the full panel with Anderson's annotations, the bottom half of the screen just cycles between images in sequence as the clip plays in full on the top half. Thankfully, the complete storyboards for this sequence and four others are also on board, featuring nice tidbits like the footnote "sort of Kubricky wide shot with deep focus." You can move through these with the directional buttons on your remote.
More expansive, in theory, is the 54-minute "Charlie Rose" segment with Murray and Anderson. This is a bust--think of the interview from The Royal Tenenbaums where Eli starts whispering "wildcat" in his mescaline daze. Rose clearly hasn't popped in his Rushmore screener, and spends most of his time with Murray asking banal questions about CAA and Michael Ovitz. There is at least a good anecdote about how four copies of Bottle Rocket, none of them opened, got Fed-Ex'd to Murray's house before he accepted the part in Rushmore. Anderson is separately interviewed for the last twenty minutes or so, and there's not much to see here beyond his late-'90s grunge-hangover haircut. He makes some interesting points about casting nonprofessional actors who can behave realistically onscreen, but mostly this is a painful round of questioning from someone armed only with minimal press notes, like "coming-of-age movie."
The best feature is easily the yak-track by Anderson, Schwartzman, and Wilson. They were recorded individually and take very different approaches, with Anderson giving a more academic survey of his influences like Jean Vigo, Schwartzman raving enthusiastically about the shoot, and Wilson almost reviewing the film, commenting extensively on its character development and literary antecedents. Wilson's comments are easily the most substantial of the three; he's both an incisive and an affective reader of his own work, which is to say he seems on the verge of tears throughout, comparing Max's trumped-up image of himself to Jay Gatsby's and calling his disillusionment "so sad" a number of times. It's a revealing track insofar as it makes the case that Anderson is largely the technician in their collaboration, and Wilson the emotional quality control. Rounding things out are Rushmore's trailer plus two keepcase inserts, including an essay by Dave Kehr and a map of Rushmore illustrated by, once again, Eric Anderson. Originally published: November 28, 2011.