Is Wes Anderson a nerd? In 2018, plenty of people would reach for other words first: hipster, twee, problematic (who isn’t?), or maybe the dreaded catch-all of “quirky.” If Anderson is considered “nerdy,” it’s in that contemporary way in which nearly anyone with any kind of enthusiasm self-identities, with affection, as a nerd. (Social outcasts who were shoved into lockers in the ’70s and ’80s might be surprised to learn that any jocks doing the shoving were, by dint of knowing a lot about football or lacrosse, really just sports nerds. For that matter, the internet has allowed yesterday’s social outcasts to become today’s angry bullies.) But 20 years ago, when Wes Anderson’s second film, Rushmore, was released to critical acclaim, nerdiness was still a simpler notion—one that Anderson’s films have complicated, often with the help of Rushmore’s star, Jason Schwartzman.
Schwartzman was only a couple of years older than Max Fischer, his 15-year-old character, when he shot Rushmore in late 1997. It was his first acting role, though he entered the field with plenty of showbiz connections: His Weezer-ish power pop band Phantom Planet had a record deal, and he is the son of Talia Shire, which also makes him nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin to Nicolas Cage and Sofia Coppola. An acting neophyte with impressive lineage is sort of the inverse of Max Fischer, who at Rushmore Academy has gained experience in acting, playwriting, directing, publishing, debate, fencing, beekeeping, and other assorted goggled activities, all while hiding his humble roots as a barber’s son.
The catch is that despite the outward appearance of being a prodigy, Max begins the movie just barely hanging onto his scholarship, because his ravenous pursuit of extracurricular activities—he’s a combination theater nerd, yearbook nerd, choir nerd, and calligraphy nerd (among others)—has left his actual grades in terrible shape. (“One of the worst students we’ve got,” is how Rushmore’s headmaster describes him). As a teenager seeing Rushmore for the first time in 1998, I found Max a little confounding, my unreasonable reaction its own form of nerdy fussiness. How could he let himself get such lousy grades? What kind of a nerd can’t fake his way through high school math? My initial reaction now brings to mind a bit of lazily conceived self-awareness from a later Simpsons season, when Milhouse corrects the record to his best friend: “I’m not a nerd, Bart. Nerds are smart.”
Maybe nerds are smart, but there’s a lot more to it than that, something Anderson and Schwarzman seem to innately understand. In 1998, nerds were well on their way from genuine outcasts to more socially acceptable, often romanticized underdog figures who might, say, get zany revenge over the jocks. Anderson’s detour from that redemption path starts with young Schwartzman’s willingness to make himself look like a real teenager, in that he’s perched awkwardly between child and self-possessed young man. Anderson emphasizes this physicality with plenty of lingering close-ups. He also assigns Max a perfectly observed faux-sophistication, which looks particularly inept when he uses it in the attempted wooing of actual adult Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), which sparks a rivalry with Max’s millionaire mentor Herman Blume (Bill Murray).
Max’s belief (however deluded) in his ability to seduce a smart, beautiful, and mostly well-adjusted woman takes advantage of Schwartzman’s prodigious gifts for smarm. Because Anderson has such a distinctive voice as a filmmaker, it’s easy to underappreciate how actors actually read his funny lines, and miss how Schwartzman strikes notes of deadpan obliviousness underneath Max’s pretensions of grandeur. It’s especially impressive that a first-time and non-adult performer could let Max’s self-consciousness and bravado coexist so perfectly. Max’s confidence also marks him as a relatively rare contemporary movie nerd, neither a grotesque caricature nor an outwardly self-deprecating “nice guy” who’s all too aware that he’s the not-so-secret hero of the story.
At the same time, Fischer’s pursuit of Miss Cross smacks of male entitlement—something that’s far from exclusive to nerds, but has become, perhaps, more noticeable with the advent of online communication (which of course nerds staked out earlier than most; I say this as a former BBS user). Anderson loves his characters too much for Rushmore to be an ahead-of-its-time condemnation of a toxic-nerd id, but it is an unusually nuanced look at a stage of development that not every precocious weirdo grows out of.
Indeed, Schwartzman’s onscreen persona has to some degree depended on not quite growing out of, or into, that nerdiness. His next prominent role for Anderson would be in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), but the spiritual successor to Max is his small part in Moonrise Kingdom (2012). He plays Cousin Ben, a relation of a Boy Scout who assists young lovers Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) on their flight from authority figures more imposing than, well, Cousin Ben. Ben comes across as the 1965 equivalent of the oldest nerd at the video arcade—short and petty enough to blend in with pubescent campers, but commanding enough to boss them around and perform a non-legally-binding marriage ceremony between the two young heroes.
Schwartzman is on screen for less than five minutes, swept through the movie by several familiar Andersonian visual/verbal cues: a side-tracking walk-and-talk shot with one particular character (in this case Schwartzman’s Ben) doing most of the talking, and a slow-motion shot of characters leaving a location. Schwartzman does most of his work from behind a pair of sunglasses not unlike the pair Max wears in his Vietnam play at the end of Rushmore and makes a hilarious little meal of the part, at one point angrily insisting on keeping a canister full of nickels as his “fee” for performing the fake wedding ceremony, before capitulating nonchalantly. But he doesn’t overwhelm the movie’s more sensitive characters. Anderson’s writing treats Ben as a showcase side character while his direction envelops him into the mise-en-scène.
That encompassing mise-en-scène is what makes Anderson such an easy fit for the minutiae-driven rigors of stop-motion animation; in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and the recent Isle Of Dogs, the characters can be as meticulously designed and arranged as the sets. At the same time, the characters in his animated movies, as absolutely delightful as they are, can feel a little thin without performers bringing that trademark deadpan stillness to flesh-and-blood life. They sometimes lack the balance Anderson’s live-action films strike between ostentatious directorial style and soulful acting.
So it’s especially impressive that Schwartzman comes close to hitting that balance in his vocal performance as Ash, the adolescent son of Mr. Fox. Ash speaks with the simmering resentment of a teenage nerd who thinks he’s being pigeonholed; he’s awkward and self-serious, and repeatedly claims to be an athlete, only to have his parents and peers ignore him when his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, brother of Wes) proves more capable and likable in most areas. Ash isn’t the funniest part of Anderson’s Roald Dahl adaptation, but he’s one of the most vivid and painful because Schwartzman doesn’t make teenage angst especially cute or endearing, even when it’s coming from an adorably animated little fox. His anger—something movies about nerdy characters have long either ignored or glorified—is palpable, even discomfiting. Ash, who does turn out to be a decent athlete, makes sense of a term like “sports nerd,” making the case that nerdiness is less dependent on particular tastes than a state of mind.
Neither of these smaller roles for Schwartzman are among the best-remembered in their respective movies. In the context of Moonrise Kingdom, Cousin Ben is basically just a funny, brief peek into the netherworld between naïvely optimistic 12-year-olds and cynical adulthood; he affects the seen-it-all tone of the latter while still indulging the former. Ash has even fewer nerd bona fides, and on paper is essentially just another neglected son. But within Schwartzman’s filmography, Ben and Ash stand out for being characters who (despite residing in Anderson Land) don’t feel insulated from “real” life. Specifically, they are in no way connected to the literary or show-business worlds. The actor’s highest-profile mainstream movies—he has supporting roles in Saving Mr. Banks, Bewitched, Funny People, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World—all have him playing showbiz types with no small degree of smarm, while several of his smaller-scale leading roles have him playing writers of literary fiction.
In The Darjeeling Limited, he inhabits that role in front of the camera and behind it, playing a writer in a movie he co-wrote with Anderson and Roman Coppola. If Max Fischer has a nerd’s special/obsessive talents and self-pitying romanticism, then Jack Whitman, Schwartzman’s character in Darjeeling (and the accompanying short “Hotel Chevalier”), sees those qualities sorta-grown into the bona fides of an adult hipster—and there’s that word again. Like “nerd,” the word “hipster” has long since lost any real concrete meaning, though that vagueness has oppositional effects. Hardly anyone self-identifies as a hipster, while these days plenty will happily self-identify as nerds. But their basic concepts are similar: terms for specializations in certain cultural ephemera that may affect socialization in one way or another.
Jack is the youngest of three estranged brothers who have reunited at the behest of the eldest, Francis (Owen Wilson), to tour India by train. All three characters have hipster-ish affectations (which is to say, they are characters in a Wes Anderson movie), and Jack is, by most outward metrics, the most outwardly successful and least troubled Whitman; while Francis tends to wounds from what is revealed to be a suicide attempt and Peter (Adrien Brody) frets about becoming a father, Jack is a published writer merely nursing a broken heart. All three brothers hide secrets from each other (and expose others’ for spite), but Jack’s life feels the most authentically separate, reflected by everything from their sleeping arrangements (he gets his own adjoining train compartment) to his side fling with a train worker (none of the other brothers have an onscreen romantic interest) to the meta-textual existence of “Hotel Chevalier,” which gives Jack more backstory than anyone else in the movie.
Stereotyping suggests that Jack should be some combination of coddled and desperate for acceptance. Instead, his mid-movie refrain during brotherly conflict is a cry of “Stop including me!” (In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, he maces his brothers in the face, seemingly just because they’re annoying him.) The movie doesn’t rely on Schwartzman for much pathos; even with some ancillary knowledge provided by “Hotel Chevalier,” Brody and Wilson do the heavier emotional lifting. Jack Whitman is more interesting, though, as another point on Anderson’s nerd continuum. Well past the adolescent concerns of Max, Ash, or Cousin Ben, Jack has presumably achieved some of his life goals—growing up to publish a book of literary fiction must be on countless nerds’ revenge lists—but still places himself in romantic non-relationships with plenty of room for self-pity, and reads bits of his stories aloud for his brothers’ approval.
Admittedly, Jack Whitman’s melancholic form of nerdy/hipster-y smarm feels less wounded or poignant here, with the performance serving the movie’s fraternal dynamic moreso than Rushmore-level portraiture. But while Darjeeling is less widely beloved than Rushmore, it uses Anderson’s style in a similar way. Both movies generate tension between Anderson’s natural inclination toward fussy precision—toward nerdiness—and the messiness of life that can’t be controlled. Anderson’s movies don’t excuse toxic-nerd behavior (or delve into its true extremes), but they recognize the conditions that can cause problems. In Rushmore, it’s the contrast between Max’s fantasy land of endless extracurricular activities and an uncaring rest of the world; in Darjeeling, it’s between the literally compartmentalized sections of the train where the brothers keep their monogrammed designer luggage and the less orderly outside world they’re supposed to be seeing.
Anderson is there directing both worlds, but on screen it’s his performers who cross between them freely (if not always willingly). Schwartzman isn’t the only one making this repeated trip, of course. Bill Murray appears in more Anderson films, with Owen Wilson (Anderson’s original co-writer) not far behind. But Murray and Wilson have established comic personas in mainstream movies, developed separately from Anderson, that his movies are free to riff off, deepen, or undermine. It’s hard to imagine viewers of Anderson’s movies wouldn’t have seen Wilson or especially Murray elsewhere, while even those who have watched other Schwartzman pictures still probably know the actor as he was in high school.
The audience’s close familiarity with Schwartzman at an awkward, formative age creates an unusual form of vulnerability that carries through even in parts that are less fully imagined than Max Fischer. Many Anderson creations qualify as nerds on paper, but the ones played by Schwartzman seem less like the lovable eccentrics nerds many see themselves as and more like the obsessive, dysfunctional people they are underneath. This may be Anderson and Schwartzman’s greatest contribution to nerds on film: They take a tedious and misleading pop culture truism from the past 20 years—that our every interest, hobby, or idiosyncrasy makes us eligible for membership in a benign and inclusive club—and lend it depth and feeling.