Wes Anderson’s second film Rushmore (1998) is his first to completely feel like what we now think of as “a Wes Anderson film.” His first movie, Bottle Rocket (1996), certainly has elements of his later work, but it’s not quite “there.” Besides being a terrific film in its own right, seen today, Rushmore almost seems like a trailer for the films that have followed it. I can think of few other early works that so clearly point out what lies ahead for the filmmaker. Anderson’s story—co-authored with Owen Wilson—is of a prep-school kid (Jason Schwartzman) with an active fantasy life and plans that are way out of keeping with reality. The story has a weirdly autobiographical feel to it that almost suggests this kind of mind-set is how Rushmore got made. And maybe it was,
Max Fischer (Schwartzman) is what we now recognize as a typical Anderson character. He’s unrealistic, impractical, has definite issues, and has gone to great lengths to create himself. As a scholarship student, Max is not on the level as his classmates, so he invents a more illustrious version of himself—including a brain-surgeon father, even though his real father (Seymour Cassel) is a sweet-tempered barber, who’s quite happy to be a barber. It’s not enough for Max, who has grandiose notions—as witness the ever more improbably elaborate stage plays he puts on at school.
Max has cockeyed charm and a unique mind-set, which holds him in good stead in some ways—ways that protect him from the world at large. But these things also isolate him from reality. And that’s both good and not so good. It makes him fearless in his self-possession and leads him to a lot of accomplishments, but it also causes him to find it entirely plausible that a widowed elementary-school teacher (Olivia Williams) would be romantically interested in him, a 15-year-old student. Similarly, it causes him to miss things on his own level. In a way, Rushmore offers an interesting variant on the whole man-boy business of the Judd Apatow films (except it predates them), in that it presents an unnaturally mature boy who relates to adults and has to learn how to relate to people his own age.
This is probably the most sweet-natured of all Anderson’s films. Though all of his movies are fairly sweet-natured, Rushmore is less jaded. It has a freshness of attitude and an easy warmth that has to be more hidden in later works—and that requires the viewer to look more closely in order to see it. In many respects, Rushmore is the key to Anderson’s subsequent films. It certainly hints at much that is to come. It’s like there are hints of Gwyneth Paltrow’s failed playwright in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) here, as well as allusions that Anderson would one day make The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). Certain tendencies flower here—like the brilliant use of a pop-music soundtrack that often shouldn’t work, but does—while the roots of other Anderson trademarks (the shaved, breakaway sets) are only just beginning. It’s a truly remarkable work—even more so now than in 1998.