Criterion // 1998 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // November 28th, 2011
"Best play ever, man."
At times it seems like director Wes Anderson has as many detractors as fans. Me? I love him. Like a lot of people, my introduction to Anderson was 1998's Rushmore, the serio-comic story of an unusual love triangle, set in and around a private school. Rushmore made a big splash on the indie movie scene, earning praise for its visual flourishes, sharp screenplay, and even sharper performances. In the years since, Anderson's movies have grown increasingly ambitious, fueling arguments between fans and critics over the fine line between a signature style and formulaic filmmaking.
Rather than take part in that argument, I defer to Criterion, who have seen fit to add nearly all of Anderson's films to their coveted home media collection. Rushmore was first of his movies to get a Criterion release back in 2000 -- a handsome set that put the film's first, bare bones DVD to shame. In the decade since, Criterion has expanded its offerings to include Blu-rays, leaving Anderson fans waiting for the day that has finally come, with the release of Rushmore in dazzling high-definition.
As far as 15-year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is concerned, Rushmore is the best private school in the world. As far as the school's headmaster (Brian Cox, Trick 'R Treat) is concerned, Max is "one of the worst students" they have. Max spends all his free time founding clubs and writing plays instead of focusing on studies. Under threat of expulsion, Max turns his attention to a new kind of extracurricular activity: pretty first grade teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams, The Postman). He enlists a new friend to help woo her -- a bored and wealthy industrialist named Herman Blume (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters). When her kind rebuffs fall on deaf ears, a desperate Max resorts to ever more elaborate schemes to win her over. Things get even more complicated when the unhappily married Blume also falls for Miss Cross -- pitting the former friends against each other in a war that threatens to tear all three of them apart.
When it comes to Wes Anderson films, Royal Tenenbaums is more ambitious, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is more visually inventive, but Rushmore is the purest expression of his style. It's also the most personal, drawing from the experiences Anderson had as a boy at St. John's private school in Houston, where much of the filming took place.
Rushmore came on the heels of Anderson's first film, Bottle Rocket, a nifty, if slight, heist flick starring future A-lister Owen Wilson and his likewise soon-to-be-famous brother Luke. Although Owen Wilson's contribution to Rushmore is limited to co-writer (Luke appears in the film in a small role), it might be the best work he's ever done. Once you get past the film's ambitious visuals, what impresses most is the screenplay. It sparkles with wit and personality, playing equally well as comedy and drama, often at the same time. After umpteen viewings, my only complaint is that the love triangle back-and-forth drags on near the end. Otherwise, the script is air-tight. Anderson and Wilson have created a world that is instantly recognizable, yet skewed enough to be inhabited by characters like Max Fischer and Herman Blume.
It is impossible to underestimate the importance of these actors in these roles. Anderson looked far and wide for the right kid to play Max, finally finding him in newcomer Jason Schwartzman. As the story goes, Schwartzman was so determined to get the part he showed up to his audition in a homemade Rushmore blazer. It's impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. The film captures both actor and character in the twilight between youth and adulthood. Max has more ambition than talent. He dreams of attending Oxford or the Sorbonne, with Harvard as a safety, at the same time he teeters on the brink of expulsion. Most of his time is spent founding clubs and creating petitions, trying to escape his humble roots by turning Rushmore into his own private kingdom. The only thing he really excels at are his plays, ambitious adaptations of movies like Serpico and Heaven and Hell -- a Vietnam War epic that brings the film to a thrilling finish.
He finds a kindred spirit in Herman Blume, a self-made millionaire who sees Max as a younger version of himself. When Bill Murray was approached by Anderson to play Blume, he was a comedy heavyweight at a career crossroads -- coming off a string of unsuccessful films, and in need of a new direction. Murray loved the script and the character so much, in fact, that he was willing to work for free. The gamble paid off. Rushmore earned him a slew of awards and nominations, and Murray found a second life as a dramatic actor. Herman Blume may be more sedate than the twenty-something wise ass characters of Murray's youth, but the spark is still there. Inspired by Max, Blume reverts to a childlike state in the best and worst ways -- especially once Miss Cross enters the picture.
As Rushmore's unwitting Helen of Troy, Olivia Williams is lovely and enigmatic. If she's a blank slate at times, it's because Max and Blume care more about what she represents than who she is. We learn far less about Miss Cross than we do about her male counterparts. We know is that she is still grieving her dead husband, an unapologetic dreamer named Edward Appleby. We also know that she sees some of him in Max, whose advances have the unintended benefit of forcing her out of self-imposed exile and into the next stage of her life.
The rest of the cast is just as impressive, from established character actors like Brian Cox, and Seymour Cassell (Stealing Harvard) as Max's barber father, down to the students, especially Mason Gamble (Arlington Road) as Max's pal Dirk, and Sara Tanaka (Old School) as Margaret Yang.
The original Rushmore Criterion DVD looked great, and it looks even better on Blu-ray. Scanned in at 2K under Anderson's supervision, the film retains all its warmth, with an added level of detail that is stunning. The clarity is especially evident in close-up -- you'll see every strand of Schwartzman's famous eyebrows, and every stitch of the Rushmore patch on his blazer -- but it looks just as fantastic in wide shots, too. Compared to the original Criterion DVD, the color is richer and more vibrant. Even better, there is no evidence of edge enhancement or the kind of digital tomfoolery that drives videophiles nuts. It's a beauty in every way.
When it comes to selecting music for films, Wes Anderson is one of the best. While he was working on Rushmore, Anderson listened to a lot of British Invasion tunes that ended up on the soundtrack, all of which sound better than ever in this 5.1 DTS-Master Audio mix. The lossless audio opens up the soundscape for music, dialogue, and surround effects -- including some subtle audio cues I'd never noticed before. Signature songs like The Creation's "Making Time" and The Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" have more oomph, as does frequent Anderson collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh's peppy prep school score.
Rushmore on Blu-ray has an impressive collection of bonus features, although it's the same impressive collection as it had on DVD. Bonus features include a laid-back and informative commentary with Anderson, Owen Wilson, and Schwartzman; a 17-minute making-of featurette, composed of on-set video footage taken by Wes's brother, Eric Anderson; a 54-minute episode of The Charlie Rose Show featuring interviews with Bill Murray and Wes Anderson; three "Max Fischer Players" spoofs, of The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight, created for the 1999 MTV Movie Awards; a collection of storyboards with a film-to-storyboard comparison for the opening scene; audition footage; and a small selection of archival photos and images. There are actually fewer images here than were included in the DVD, which had so many bits and pieces it spilled over into two sections. It's a head-scratcher, not a deal-breaker, but it's reason enough for superfans to hold onto their DVDs. The set also comes with the same high-quality fold-out "map" of the film's major locations and characters, drawn by Eric Anderson, and an essay by critic Dave Kehr.
Wes Anderson fans might argue over which of his films is the best, but it's hard top imagine a top three list that doesn't include Rushmore. It's just as vital, funny, and moving now as when it was released. Brimming with personality and boasting a spectacular cast, it deserves its place in the coveted Criterion catalog. The Blu-ray release has been a long time coming, and the wait has been mostly worth it. Even if the bonus features are just standard-def ports of those included on the 2000 DVD, the audio-visual upgrade earns top marks.
One of the best we've got. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #96
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
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