The first time we see Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore, he’s in the middle of a hubristic dream about himself. Nonchalantly taking a moment away from his morning stock market reading to solve a math problem that even his teacher’s mentor at MIT couldn’t crack, Max is all smug swagger, the kind of assured prep-school type who knows he’s about to jog through life on his sheer genius. And then, a second after that, Max wakes up.
Twenty years on, Rushmore has become one of the pre-eminent coming-of-age movies of the 1990s. It’s influenced everything from laborious Fall Out Boy song titles to a new generation of industrious, low-budget indie comedies about ambitious underachievers set to meticulously curated soundtracks. It cemented a melancholic version of Bill Murray that may well be more familiar to younger generations than the rambunctious Murray of so many classic comedies. It made Schwartzman a star, and its director Wes Anderson an even bigger one. A great deal of its appeal comes from its mod-rock style and its perfectly executed dark comedy, but it’s also stood the test of time better than a majority of late-’90s teen comedies by having a wisdom about young (and old) men that most of its peers lacked.
One of the things that Rushmore understands well, even if its fans sometimes don’t, is that Max is more than a little bit obnoxious. Sure, Anderson treats his compulsive need to be acknowledged for his efforts with bemusement a lot of the time, but he and Owen Wilson’s screenplay also has an excellent ear for the ways in which the precocious Max still sounds and acts like a self-obsessed teenage boy. Like a lot of disaffected high schoolers, Max is desperate to buck a system that he views as repressive and misunderstanding of his genius. Also like a lot of them, he fails to see how desperately indifferent most of them are to his plight. Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox), the principal of Rushmore Academy, wants Max to be anyone else’s problem but his. Max’s father (Seymour Cassel) is dealing with the loss of his wife and Max’s mother in his own quiet way. Max’s only real friend is his chapel partner Dirk (Mason Gamble), he’s failing all his classes, and he’s desperate to be loved in the way that a lot of teenagers want to be loved: by somebody who’ll at once lust after them and coddle them like a parent.
The second he meets Rushmore’s new first grade teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), Max decides that Rosemary is his soulmate, and neither age nor Rosemary’s total lack of interest nor his own shortcomings will get in the way. In a lot of filmmakers’ hands, Rushmore could turn creepy really quickly. Particularly in a terse classroom exchange between Max and Rosemary late in the film, even Anderson straddles that line on occasion, but the film’s blunt pragmatism about all the ways in which Max isn’t ready for the realities of the life he’s chosen for himself is what keeps it on an even keel. Max is a child, and in large part thanks to Schwartzman’s nasally gawky performance, he looks like a child. He’s a child desperate to be respected and adored the way he thinks men will be, but he’s still a child when it counts.
So is Herman Blume (Murray), and the relationship between he and Max is where Rushmore lands on some of its most affecting ideas about maturing into adulthood. In short, Anderson and Wilson use the film to drive at the point that growing up isn’t a finish-line sort of thing, at least not in the ways you’re taught as a kid. Max and Herman hit it off right away because they’re mirror images of one another. Max might be poor and Herman rich, but they’re both self-destructive, both full of anger, both desperate to cling to somebody who can make sense of all the things they dislike about themselves so that they won’t have to. Both of them see Rosemary as that figure, and Williams finds a great deal of emotion in Rosemary’s willingness to let her guard down around both men at various points, even knowing that no good will probably come of it. She projects a mature vulnerability that’s constantly at odds both visually and in the story with Schwartzman’s dweeby simpering and Murray’s forlorn, distant ache.
There’s a lot of depth to Rushmore, but lingering in those depths for too long does a disservice to how consistently funny it also is. Like a number of Anderson’s best films, the jokes in Rushmore might sting, but they do so while simultaneously landing the belly laugh. Rushmore is full of classic setpieces (the montages involving Max’s various school activities and he and Herman’s eventual game of reckless one-upsmanship), but some of its biggest laughs are shoved into the margins. This comic sensibility would become a hallmark of Anderson’s work to come, but some of his best gags can be found here: Herman stuffing an elementary schooler’s 3-point shot in mid-phone call, Max jotting liner notes into a bible in artful calligraphy, pretty much any background image from the post-pay “Heaven and Hell Cotillion” at the film’s end. Rushmore cemented so much of Anderson’s stylistic sensibility, from the Mark Mothersbaugh score to the meticulous rule-of-thirds photography, but most of all it established him as a filmmaker who could exist as both one of his generation’s best comic directors, and as one of its most thoughtfully melancholic.
Here, that melancholy largely manifests itself in the form of anger, but it’s not the kind of anger you typically think of when “movie anger” comes to mind. Rushmore is an angry movie in the way that people are usually angry in life: exhausted, sometimes a little wearily funny, often just trying to find something or someone else to help shoulder the burden for a while. It’s mostly unsentimental about how selfish that kind of anger can be, but hey, that’s growing up. Max is the kind of totally unique creation that only a pair of enterprising screenwriters could dream up, but he’s also little more than the insane pipe dreams of every art-minded teenager brought to vivid life. The hardest part of growing up is realizing that being older won’t automatically give you the answers, but by the time Max and Herman reach the end of Rushmore, they’ve figured out that the next best thing is just making it as far as they have at all.