...Rushmore had slipped between the cracks for CV until now. It had been on our list of movies to catch up with since it opened a couple of months back and developed a certain buzz – at least in some quarters. I mean there are so many checks next to the title (more than Gods and Monsters, more than Shakespeare in Love ferhevvensake!) in Film Comment‘s "critics choice" ratings that expectations had to be high.
Hello? Rushmore is basically a yawner, a high school sitcom dressed up to look like something deconstructed. Our hero is Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a nerdy overachiever in extracurricular activities who is neglecting his academic work. So we get a series of fast cuts with the vitae of his club presidencies. athletic prowess, etc., etc. Funny? Not.
The premise on which the intended humor is based is that Max really has learned all the obnoxious ploys of the pushing-to-succeed adult, and he has the routine down to a T. So wheeling and dealing and blackmailing and manipulating are all simply hysterical because it’s just this precocious teenager acting out. Funny? Uh uh.
Then we have the New York Film Critics Circle giving Bill Murray the best supporting actor award for 1998 – for all of 1998, a year in which rock solid performances by people like Ed Harris and James Coburn were in contention. Murray plays Herman Blume, a wealthy, bored alumnus of Max’s school, father to a pair of obnoxious male twins who are also students at the school, unhappy husband. He is attracted by Max’s patter and they become friendly. Likely? No. Is there a whole lot of acting going on here? No. Bill Murray is a good actor and can be very funny indeed when he has a real role to play. Herman Blume has very few funny lines to say and mostly hangs around looking sad and feeling sorry for himself. Bill Murray walks through this role in bewilderment, seeking a character to play. It ain’t there in the script.
The problem is that Wes Anderson, the director and cowriter, and Owen Wilson, the other writer, have not put a single rounded character on the screen. They had a concept and worked out a highly schematic plot to illustrate their satirical insights. They knew the targets they wanted to poke fun at. But effective humor on the screen grows out of the development of character; it’s funny when it happens to real people not when it happens to lists of characteristics, to constructs.
Olivia Williams, as a fetching young widow wooed by both Max and Herman, is the only genuinely sympathetic character in the entire film, and that is based more on her personal charm than on anything the writers gave her. She’s lovely. There are a handful of other characters, including some well drawn cameos (Max’s father, the bully Scot, the headmaster), but peripheral characters cannot change what is at its core a hollow effort. Don’t even bother to rent it.