Ah, Youth

Callow, narcissistic, and confused.

Directed by Wes Anderson
Touchstone Pictures

Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the 15-year-old protagonist of Wes Anderson’s well-reviewed comedy Rushmore, looks like Tom Cruise with his face pinched between a giant’s thumb and forefinger so that his tiny eyes are squashed together and his big nose and teeth pop out. With his thick black glasses, he looks as if he’s being photographed through a fishbowl, an effect that the director intensifies by shooting much of the movie with a fishbowl lens. A student at a prestigious prep school, the Rushmore Academy, Max travels amid décor that has a cartoon flatness of perspective and is painted in near luminous primary colors, with some added deep brown, green, crimson, and gold leaf to convey the institution’s toniness. Intent on erecting a multimillion dollar aquarium to impress a prim first-grade teacher with whom he’s obsessed, Max himself seems the king fish of a giant tank.

How we are intended to view Max is the overriding–albeit unstated–question raised by Rushmore, which played the New York Film Festival last September, opened for a week in New York and Los Angeles in December to qualify for the Academy Awards, and begins a nationwide run this week. My first impression was that Max is supposed to be vaguely repulsive, but after spending some time with him (and seeing the movie again) I decided that there was nothing vague about it–he’s just repulsive. My take, I concede, is not the only one. Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson (who starred in the pair’s last film, the tediously quirky 1996 BottleRocket), play a funny game with their indefatigable protagonist. On one hand, they let us know that Max is a screw-up and a hustler; on the other, they collude with him in myriad ways, to the point of warping their mise en scène to reflect his worldview and enhance his stature. It’s this tension that leads some people to regard Rushmore as having dramatic complexity, but I think Anderson and Wilson are just trying to have it both ways. Like their hero, they spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back for being aggressively unconventional.

Max, whose mother died when he was 7 and whose elderly father is a barber, attends Rushmore on a scholarship but is one of the school’s worst students. The movie merrily relates the ways in which he compensates for poverty and academic disgrace. He tells people that his father is a neurosurgeon. He is shown leading the debate society, the fencing club, the French club, the chess club, and the “Max Fischer Players,” who perform wildly inappropriate dramatizations of such films as Serpico to undiscriminating audiences. He has, we are told, spent the previous year petitioning to have Latin expunged from the curriculum; now, to impress the teacher (Olivia Williams), he campaigns to have the course restored. When a self-made millionaire businessman (Bill Murray) delivers a cynical, derisive speech to the privileged student body, Max recognizes a kindred spirit and aggressively befriends the tycoon, eventually enlisting him in his extravagant aquarium scheme.

How, I repeat, are we supposed to take Max? Are we to cheer his ludicrous efforts to bed a woman twice his age? Is it supposed to be cute when he sites the aquarium in the middle of the school’s baseball diamond and brings in the bulldozers without informing anyone in the administration? Anderson and Wilson are poker faced: Max’s obnoxiousness might be meant as a state of grace.

Rushmore does captures something of adolescence that few movies come near: It often unfolds in a narcissistic trance. That’s not a negligible feat. What I wanted, however, was a larger perspective, something more insightful than the one-thing-after-another existential whimsy that made Bottle Rocket such a trial. In one scene, ripped off from My Left Foot (1989), Max gets drunk in the course of a celebratory dinner and insults the teacher’s date: “I have a hit play. What did you ever do?” His churlishness isn’t compelling, it’s just an embarrassment, a callow cry for attention. “Notice me!” says the character, and you say, “Why?”

As the teacher, Williams has the right combination of standoffishness and warmth, but she’s more colorless than this passive part requires. Murray, in a dry, “straight” turn, lowers the volume on his wiseacre act, confining his trademark irony to an occasional glint in the eye and, in the face of crisis, an escalating air of gonzo dissolution. He’s fine, but the raves (and the awards) for this performance are baffling. Much more fun is Brian Cox as Rushmore’s headmaster. A truly weird actor who, in Manhunter (1986), made for an eerier Hannibal Lecter than Anthony Hopkins, Cox rules with the kind of settled irritability that suggests why prep schools are petri dishes for acts of adolescence defiance.

In the “Arts & Leisure” section of last Sunday’s New York Times, director Anderson recounts how he traveled to the Berkshires to show Rushmore to the retired NewYorker critic Pauline Kael, from whose writing, he says, he learned to watch movies. Hoping for an ecstatic reaction from this most vital of critics, he found instead an old woman hobbled by Parkinson’s disease, and one whose response to his film was gnomic and gently dismissive. Bummer, huh? So Anderson turned around and wrote up the encounter, in a way designed both to deflate his own persona and to make sport of Kael’s infirmities and memory lapses.

I met Kael in the mid-1980s while I was writing criticism for the Village Voice, but only got to know her after she retired from TheNew Yorker. In general, she’s a lot more lucid than, for instance, me. The memory lapses over the summer were caused by something else, specifically Sinemet, a powerful Parkinson’s drug that has been the talk of various Web sites devoted to the disease. The consensus is that the medication mitigates crippling tremors but that users need to have their levels monitored carefully because too much can leave you muddled. It was in this phase of Kael’s Sinemet trial that Anderson made his appearance with film cans in tow–and poised to tell the world that she no longer remembered who Bill Murray was.

Given the state of her health at the time, it was gracious of Kael to entertain this chucklehead for even a minute–a mistake she probably won’t make again. Anderson, meanwhile, probably doesn’t realize that he did anything unseemly. “What do you expect?” said a friend. “He’s like the kid in Rushmore, a callow narcissist.” At least the kid in Rushmore confines his aesthetic offenses to high-school auditoriums.