The Barber of Harris County
To judge by contemporary American movies, high school is a warehouse for moronic, lubricious thugs. And many of them are presumed to be sitting in the audience. When Ernest Goes to School, moviegoers join the community of Dangerous Minds, or merely empty ones. Rushmore, however, respects both subject and viewer, though it places its faith in irreverence, and though its title suggests vapid monumentality, huge heads made of nothing but stone. A coming-of-age story that prizes wit over clamor, Rushmore takes its name from an elite prep school that fifteen-year-old Max Fischer organizes and controls, before his expulsion. He is able to attend genteel Rushmore Academy because of the scholarship he was awarded for writing a one-act play about Watergate, when he was in the second grade.
The story of Max’s experiences in the tenth grade, Rushmore is the sophomore feature of director Wes Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson, Texans now resident in Los Angeles. Bottle Rocket, their debut project, began as a thirteen-minute short that so impressed officials of Columbia Pictures when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival that they were willing to pay $5 million to expand it into the feature that was released in 1996. Now Rushmore, which was produced by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, doubles the budget of Bottle Rocket. At this geometrical progression, it will take Anderson and Wilson two more rounds to equal the financial resources of the average Hollywood production. They have already matched its artistic merits.
Though its ivy and tweed suggest New England aping Old England, Rushmore was in fact filmed in Baytown and Houston, in part at Anderson’s own alma mater (St. John’s). But though made in its director’s home state, the work has little to do with the likes of William Travis except that both were shot in Texas. In Bottle Rocket, three young slackers take to the road to live off the land. They begin their picaresque careers by burglarizing an affluent suburban home, though it happens to belong to one of them. Artists, too, begin – and often end – by pilfering themselves. As he lay dying and composing his autobiographical masterpiece, Marcel Proust fed off his childhood.
Max is probably more precocious and obnoxious than either Anderson or Wilson was. After all, they had to study, and meet, at the University of Texas at Dallas before making Bottle Rocket. But the adolescent impresario of the Max Fischer Players is already adapting Serpico to his prep school stage. When forced to attend plebeian Grover Cleveland High School, he mounts an elaborate, explosive production set in the midst of the Vietnam War. An early, sprightly montage of extracurricular activities establishes Max as the Sergeant Bilko of blazer youths, a preppie teen in command of everything – chess, drama, newspaper, debate, German club, French club, yearbook, astronomy – at Rushmore, except his dismal grades. Though he orchestrates a successful campaign to save Rushmore’s Latin courses, Max’s own academic performance is cast in the accusative case. “He’s one of the worst students we’ve got,” maintains Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox), the headmaster, apoplectic that a common student has wrested mastery of Rushmore away from him. Guggenheim places him on sudden-death probation, and when Max begins unauthorized construction of an aquarium on the baseball field, the headmaster expels him.
Rushmore is driven by Max’s relations with two adults. One is Herman Blume, a feckless and wistful steel tycoon played with exceptional gentleness – and a thin mustache – by Bill Murray. Blume’s twin sons attend Rushmore, but they seem to him members of an alien species, and he much prefers the company of the cocky nerd Max. Max, who declines Blume’s offer of a job, is able to cajole an $8 million donation (more than Anderson could get from Columbia to finance Bottle Rocket) out of the older man, a manic-depressive maladroit who seems to see in Max a younger version of himself. Max and Blume become inseparable, until both fall in love with Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a fetching young widow who teaches first grade at Rushmore. Though much impressed by Max, Cross, who idealizes her dead husband, cannot take the boy seriously as a lover. When Cross takes up with Blume, Max feels betrayed. He wreaks his revenge on both, in wily ways that demonstrate his ingenuity, stubbornness, and immaturity.
Rushmore is not exactly a Marxist critique of entitlement and exploitation. In juxtaposing posh Rushmore Academy with drab Grover Cleveland High School, it is less intent on exposing social injustice than provoking tender mirth. But the emotional core of the film is a squalid secret about class. Over-achievement is not all that sets Max apart from the other students at Rushmore Academy. This is a story about passing – centered on a boy with failing grades in math. In order to command the respect, if not the affection, of his fellow preppies at the expensive, exclusive school, Max must pretend that he, like them, was born to privilege. Yet his very industriousness distinguishes him from the effete, complacent children of affluence.
Social climbers are not like the very rich, or like those content not to be very rich. Though he claims that his father is an eminent neurosurgeon, Bert Fischer (Seymour Cassel) is in fact a modest barber, a sweet, sad widower inordinately proud of his only child’s accomplishments. After his expulsion from Rushmore and his disappointment with Grover Cleveland, a large public high school that simulates a penitentiary and enrolls students who are indifferent to calligraphy, beekeeping, and fencing, Max abandons ambition. Like his father, he resigns himself to cutting hair and eating TV dinners.
Though it is thoroughly unlike most other schoolboy movies, Rushmore shares some of the texture of The Graduate, not only in the plot of a young man’s infatuation with an older woman. A shot of Murray’s Herman Blume, feeling bereft of feeling for his affluent existence, diving beneath the surface in his swimming pool, recalls Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in subaqueous retreat from a party at his parents’ house. The score by Mark Mothersbaugh echoes the folk-rock commentary that Simon and Garfunkel provided for The Graduate.
Jason Schwartzman, in his first screen role, is a felicitous choice for Max. The son of Talia Shire, Schwartzman does an inspired job of conveying the chutzpah and neediness of a kid who is both class lion and goat, whose college plans, he boasts, are to use Harvard as his safety school while applying for early admission to Oxford and the Sorbonne. He is Holden Caulfield behaving with the aplomb of Woody Allen. Schwartzman’s Max inspires the fierce devotion of the younger boys, including Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble, best known as Dennis the Menace), but he elicits the contempt of cooler upperclassmen, who recognize and despise a bounder and a dweeb when they see one. Self-centered and self-pitying, Max seems in love more with the idea of Miss Cross than with the actual woman, and he is oblivious to the affection he arouses in young Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka).
In Bottle Rocket, Anderson dramatized an elaborate, covert scheme to free one of his main characters, Anthony Adams, from the mental ward to which he had been consigned. The plan succeeds, but not before we learn that it was unnecessary, that the hospitalization had been entirely voluntary and that Adams could easily have checked himself out any time he chose. Much of Rushmore shares this quality of inventive absurdity – of loony shtick like the stratagem that Max, claiming to have been hit by a car, devises one rainy night in order to climb into Rosemary Cross’s bedroom window. The challenge – for Max’s life as for Anderson’s art – is to link the shtick, to construct a coherent feature film out of clever little gags.
Max spurs enough of our sympathy and even begrudging admiration that we root for his momentum. We cannot abide its cessation, his acquiescence to the fate of workaday coiffeur. A boy who cut his teeth on playwriting surely can do more than make a life of cutting hair. Like Bobby Fischer, Max Fischer appears destined for prodigious accomplishment. But, like Max himself, Anderson and Wilson seem most animated when they are contriving larks, quirky replicas of birds that never fly. Max even ends up designing kites, as founder of Grover Cleveland’s kite society. But once he returns to the barber shop, and the real father, Bert Fischer, meets the surrogate one, Herman Blume, the ingenuity of his creators falters. Prolonging the life of the scamp with scissors in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Rossini managed to conceive The Barber of Seville. Beyond the callow missteps of their Barber of Harris County, can Anderson and Wilson imagine more than a precocious series of preposterous starts and stops?
Steven G. Kellman is Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at U.T.—San Antonio and a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He reviews film frequently for the Observer.