“I saved Latin. What did you ever do?”
Writer/director Wes Anderson‘s style was officially born on his sophomore effort Rushmore. That’s not to say his debut was devoid of the trademarks we associate him with today, it was simply set in a world possessed by more authentic rules. He’s since made a career out of skewed storybooks of selfish characters wandering a landscape they misguidedly feel power over as they take their missteps in stride with over-the-top reactions steeped in a heightened state of the absurd. His stories take upper crust notions of the mundane and transform them into a fairy tale for adults where consequences are less real and more situations are brushed off so redemption can arrive in one grandiose fell swoop. And of all the “heroes” he’s placed in the symmetrically ordered alternate reality of his mind, Max Fischer may be the best.
Based off of his and cowriter Owen Wilson‘s personal experiences growing up and attending prep schools in Houston and Dallas respectively, Rushmore arrives like all of Anderson’s films as a living diorama of meticulously composed frames and the characters that populate it with actions we should abhor and yet always find ourselves laughing at. Max (Jason Schwartzman in his film debut) is the epitome of that endearing megalomaniac, a D-student from a blue collar family who has cultivated a persona of intellect and clout via a laundry list of extracurricular activities he either leads, founded, or both. With his “steward” Dirk (Mason Gamble) almost always in tow, Max proves the toast of the town with parents, a source of warranted friction with fellow students, and a thorn in the side of headmaster Dr. Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox).
Fifteen going on forty, he can’t help believe he can talk his way out of or into anything by flashing his braced smile and mentioning his many accolades. But even as his newest school play “Serpico” proves a hit—thanks in part to an iron fist control leading to his star actor slugging him in the face as adrenaline boils over—the Renaissance boy finds himself one bad report card from expulsion. Knowing tests and homework are far from his forte, Max decides instead to let actions speak louder than grades. Inspired by a quote written in the margins of a book on Jacques-Yves Costeau, he petitions to save Latin (despite hating it) and to build a teaching aquarium on campus to cement his philanthropic worth and win the object of his affection: grade school teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Wiliams).
The film is therefore chock full of tropes from the over-achieving know-it-all who is despised by his peers on mere principle despite them all finding themselves covetous and jealous when not included in his latest scheme; the puppy love crush for a pretty teacher who shows the same level of interest as she does in any of her students; and the idea that any problem can be solved if you only mask its legitimate solution with a bombastic display of excess positioned to make everyone forget the real issue at hand. With a combination of Anderson’s assuredness balancing them together and his heightened reality’s aesthetic helping us forget our need to rip its authenticity apart, we buy into the charade as easily as children do their bedtime stories full of magic, monsters, and magnificently adorned royalty.
We find the morals and messages hidden beneath the surface, sympathizing with these lonely creatures as we hold onto hope that their horribly selfish acts finding redemption/success means we can too. We either relate to Max’s over-inflated self-worth covering the insecurity he feels from constantly existing on the cusp of failure; Rosemary’s sadness after the death of her one true love keeping her at an arm’s length from anyone who might assist in forgetting him; or sad-sack local businessman Herman Blume’s (a brilliantly rejuvenated and retooled Bill Murray) crippling sense of inadequacy as a husband and father who takes young Fischer under his wing not to mentor but to vicariously live through the same trajectory of excitement and zeal he once watched spiral into his current, self-destructive present. So busy wanting, none remember what it means to give.
But while they all end up sabotaging their own happiness by refusing to let anyone else’s come first, we somehow still hope a happy ending exists. They may not all understand the error of their ways, but maybe one will see through their destructive paths to break the cycle. Because they do all have something of value to offer—the main trio and those surrounding them don’t simply come together randomly for the joke. A kid like Dirk needs someone to serve, Magnus Buchan (Stephen McCole) a know-it-all to bully, and Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka) a project to fix. Rosemary yearns for what she lost becoming a widow, Max the love and support of intellectuals more advanced then his barber father’s (Seymour Cassel) not-so-naïve sweetness, and Herman someone from the new generation he can trust after failing his sons.
Until they realize actions aren’t simply taken to acquire something in return, however, they’ll continue to engage in the war of attrition love brings. Thankfully the road is paved with hilarious quirk that only Anderson and Wilson can create—the kind where a teenager can buy dynamite for an Apocalypse Now-esque auditorium show or a grown man will destroy a child’s bike for petty vengeance. We believe every insane thing because Anderson paints everyone as characters of fiction. No one involved is real, nor do they attempt to be so. Each is a hyper-real cliché used to point an embellished mirror at us so we may admit our own shortcomings and discover how to better live. It’s an opportunity for actors to have fun as caricature and the audience to laugh at them and themselves in the process.