Near the ending of Rushmore, Max introduces his father to his former teacher crush, making sure to mention that “He’s a barber.” It’s cruel qualification to make, and I winced. Even given how ultra class conscious Max is, the fact that the father (like Mr. Littlejeans, the Indian groundskeeper) can’t seem to be a character because he has to be a symbol seems to reflect badly on the movie and WA. After all, what must it be like for that poor man to know how much his son despises him? The film can’t ask that, because the figure of the uneducated, unambitious failure of a father has to represent Max’s worst fears, the rock bottom of which a genius like him lives in fear. There’s an earlier scene when the father is urging Max to go back to school, go back to his dreams of being (the father says, with an innocent earnestness) a diplomat or a senator. And Max just sighs dramatically: “Pipe dreams, dad. I’m a barber’s son.” It’s a reflection of how much more Max has to grow, of course, but it also reflects the depth of his pain (and this is a movie that uses pain the way cereal uses milk), so the father can only nod, mute and ashamed, anesthetized to his son’s vicious barb by his own pathos.
And then, at the very end of the movie, there’s an almost throwaway line, where Luke Wilson walks up to the elder Fischer, and tries to make casual conversation. “I understand you’re a neurosurgeon?” Without missing a beat, the father casually shoots back: “No I‘m a barber,” unsurprised, and laughs as he walks away “But a lot of people make that mistake.” I didn’t get until later. Of course. He’s known all along. He knows his son despises him. And he knows why. And he loves him.