Coming-of-age stories are one of the most overused archetypes in Hollywood: familiar, relatable and uplifting. In other words, it’s a proven formula that works. So when Wes Anderson revealed that his second feature film was going to follow that outline after Bottle Rocket bombed at the box office, I’m sure his producers were thrilled.
They might’ve been less enthusiastic when they read the script and found that the hero fakes injuries to try and win the heart of the woman he loves (one of the teachers at his school, nonetheless) and when his best friend starts dating that woman, he jealously tries to cut the brakes on his friend’s car. How are people supposed to get behind this guy if he’s trying to take us to all of these dark places?
The simple answer is that we have all been to those places before, because part of growing up is learning to cope with the injustices that life throws at you without succumbing to our worst impulses. That’s why we forgive the protagonist when he tries to exact terrible revenge on the friend who betrayed him. We’ve all felt that way before, only most of us haven’t acted on it.
You see, Anderson does adhere to the coming-of-age formula: he just does it in his unique, off-brand sort of way.
Anderson once revealed that Jason Schwartzman reminded him of Dustin Hoffman the first time they met. The resemblance was so striking that the director decided to take the character of Max in that direction, so it’s only natural then that Max finds himself in the same predicament that Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock faced in The Graduate: two talented young men whose pursuit of an older woman, accidental or otherwise, shook their lives to the core. In his case, Max isn’t seduced by Rosemary, the teacher that he falls for. Rather, he is seduced by the prospect of living happily ever after with her, a common trap that many young men Max’s age stumble into. Everyone thinks his infatuation is misguided and foolhardy, including Rosemary herself, but to Max it makes too much sense not to pursue.
It’s no surprise that Max’s exploits in love are as unconventional as the rest of his life. Here is a student who fully devotes himself to taking up as many extracurricular activities at Rushmore (the private school he attends) as he can, while this unquestioned commitment to his school simultaneously torpedoes his academic career. As he surmises, “I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.” Why bother with excelling in the classroom if your life’s ambition is never to graduate? It’s a fascinatingly pragmatic and flawed approach to high school, but Max merely shrugs off anyone who questions his philosophy. He feels that he has already come of age, so you see, and doesn’t understand why his peers and teachers have such a hard time grasping that.
The only person who finds himself impressed rather than irritated by Max’s persona is Herman Blume (Bill Murray’s rebirth as a regular in Anderson’s films), a business mogul going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. His job is boring, his marriage is failing and his spoiled sons drive him up the wall. It’s only natural for someone like that to be drawn to Max’s confidence, perhaps because it was something that he too once possessed. Their friendship grows rapidly until it is derailed by separate courtships of Rosemary. How quickly our behavior turns juvenile once terrible envy takes a hold of us. This kind of feud emerges in many coming-of-age tales, though I believe Rushmore featured the first to develop between a 15-year old student and a near 50-year old industrialist.
So what is Anderson trying to tell us here? That being scorned by love will revert any adult back to a childlike state? That the challenges we face in school also await us in adulthood, only in different forms? Or is it simply that we must learn to move past crushing disappointment and pursue the opportunities that follow it? Maybe a little of everything.
I didn’t always like Max in this film, but I always understood him. It’s not hard to take a step back in to your high school days and remember all the times that we could’ve handled ourselves more maturely and with a little more grace. It’s also easy to look at Blume and realize that this is a lesson you’re never too old to learn. Anderson is gifted at looking directly at the absurdities of life and finding the humor. In the midst of Max’s silly feud with Blume, Rosemary tells him, “You know, you and Herman deserve each other. You’re both little children.” Nothing cuts you down to size more quickly than the object of your affection telling it like it is.
Not surprisingly, much of what transpires in Anderson and Owen Wilson’s script (yes, the same Owen Wilson who blew me away with his performance in Bottle Rocket) is drawn from their real-life experiences. If the story feels too out of the norm to be authentic, that means the events are certainly ones that those two guys actually went through. And I think that’s one of the main reasons why Rushmore developed such a following and is considered in many circles to be one of the greatest movies of the 90’s: coming of age stories are easy to relate to, but not many of them take pages from our own lives and capture them on the screen.
To that end, Rushmore ushered in Anderson as a serious filmmaker who comprehends serious material and then presents it in his own, zany way. All he really needed was an audience, and then he could do the thing that he really loves to do for the rest of his life.
His legion of fans happily obliged.