The best comedies are the ones that break your heart. They are not tear-jerkers. They do not strain for their effects. Sad moments in these comedies are more like the wake of great jokes; the great jokes made great because they show us how silly we are, and how much there is to love in us, for all our faults. Wes Anderson’s Rushmore is a great comedy because it takes a lot of awkward moments and forgives the person who messes-up the most. In Max Fischer, Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson created one of the great comedic heroes in modern movies. Max is easily the equal of anyone Woody Allen has ever played – and better (perhaps), because he’s capable of love, and not too old to learn something.
Rushmore is a comedy about a love triangle. Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a student at the elite Rushmore Academy (presumably somewhere in the North Eastern United States). He is a member of every after-school club he can put his name to, but his grades are terrible and the school principal (Brian Cox) wants him out. Untroubled by his dire scholastic situation, Max befriends a local millionaire (Bill Murray) and falls in love with a Rushmore faculty member (Olivia Williams). He convinces himself his love is reciprocated, but when Bill Murray falls for Olivia Williams too, the stage the set for a show-down between Max and the man who once saved New York from the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.
This sounds like… I don’t know what this movie sounds like. But it is not what you expect it’s going to be. The old man/young man bit sounds like the run-up to the kind of dross Dudley Moore used to make. The private school bit sounds like this could be son of Caddyshack. It’s got Bill Murray circa late-90s in it, so maybe you look at that and think, “Oh no… not Larger Than Life again.” But then you watch the movie, and you are glad, because Rushmore is great. It’s a bit like a Hal Ashby movie, if Hal Ashby had cross-bred his style with Woody Allen and who-knows-who. It is its own kind of movie, a funny/sad kind of movie, a comedy that breaks your heart, and mends it. It is absolutely not the movie you imagine Owen Wilson writing. But when it’s over, you want to sit down with Owen Wilson and ask him how a man who knew so much about life could ever want to kill himself (didn’t he listen to Max?)
Bill Murray became Bill Murray in Rushmore. He’d been working towards becoming Bill Murray for a long time, in Ed Wood, in Tootsie, in bits and pieces of every movie he’d ever made. But Rushmore gave Murray the chance to let his guard down at last. Maybe he felt he’d been invincible for long enough. Because here he is as everyone who always liked him wanted him; funny and sad and beaten (all of which he’d been before) and kind (which I’m pretty sure he hadn’t). There’s just enough of the trademark Murray wit to keep people happy in Rushmore, but he isn’t angry here – he’s passed that. Murray in Rushmore is right at the brink. Then Max appears. And Murray welcomes him.
Jason Schwartzman had done nothing before Rushmore. He’s part of the Coppola dynasty, but that hadn’t helped his career much. The role of Max probably put a lot of other actors off to hear it described. He’s a geek, he falls for an older woman; he writes plays for a hobby and gets punched in the face at least twice. Again, Max sounds like he’s Revenge of the Nerds material, but then that Hal Ashby spirit takes over… Max becomes someone dashing, bold, eccentric and brave. This is a geek who burns his books and gives his principal the finger. Max is the James Dean of the Chess Club set.
How does Rushmore break your heart? Gently, expertly… what it does doesn’t really need adverbs. Wes Anderson has a knack for having people say what they feel very simply and without evasion, as when Max says, “And I’m in love with you” to the wrong girl, and you see it’s because he can’t not say the words, not because it’s the right moment to say them. What’s funny in a Wes Anderson movie can turn sad so quickly it might feel jarring if he didn’t know what he was doing. The trick is: he wants to break your heart, because great comedy is about laughter and tragedy. Once you know funny and sad are the same, then you’re ready to make great movies.