** 1/2 Stars
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Writing credits:Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Warner Bros. * 93 minutes
Wes Anderson's RUSHMORE is being touted in its broadcast advertising as the best film of 1998. I don't know which 1998 they lived through, but as clever, witty, quirky and unique as RUSHMORE is, the 1998 that I lived through saw an equally clever, witty, quirky and unique film called THE OPPOSITE OF SEX, that I myself prefer.
Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is the sort of kid that used to appear in films with names like REVENGE OF THE NERDS. He's the kid that the football jocks in flicks like VARSITY BLUES get off on tormenting. Homely, clearly Jewish, he's what in Yiddish is called a "macher" -- founder of every club on campus, author AND director of the school play, alternate on the wrestling squad, mascot of the cheerleading team, Max is involved in everything. As the film opens, he is fantasizing about solving a math problem that even his teacher's esteemed professor at M.I.T. could not answer. And therein lies the problem -- Max is flunking out of Rushmore Academy. You see, Rushmore is Max's life, and without it, he's just a barber's (the marvelous Seymour Cassel) son.
Max is impressed with a speech given by steel tycoon and Rushmore alumnus Herman Blume (Bill Murray), especially the remark "so stick it to the rich boys." He also falls in love with Rushmore first-grade teacher named Miss Cross (Olivia Williams, THE POSTMAN) after seeing a banal Jacques Cousteau quote she wrote in a library book, and becomes determined to win her. Because of her apparent interest in aquatic life, he develops a plan to construct an aquarium at the school, just for her, and approaches the aforementioned Blume (BILL MURRAY), to obtain some seed money. Max's offbeat charm entrances Blume, but the friendship goes sour when Blume falls in love with Miss Cross, setting up a ludicrous confrontation between the man and the boy. Max, however, deploys all of his considerable mental and logistical resources to not only try to win Miss Cross, but also to destroy his friend/nemesis Blume.
Bill Murray's Herman Blume is a scruffier version of the cynic he played so well in Groundhog Day. He is becoming the poster boy for midlife malaise of the Saturday Night Live generation. His Blume is both funny and pathetic, though I disagree with other critics who seem to think this performance breaks any new ground. Jason Schwartzman, son of Coppola dynasty member Talia Shire, is extraordinary as Max. He is bright, glib, articulate, and totally insane. Yet he imbues Max with a pathos that makes his role different from just another comedic Jewish nerd role.
There are sections in the film's middle that indicate Max's frustrations are driving him to a malevolent madness. These scenes are photographed in such a way as to indicate to this reviewer that Wes Anderson has perhaps seen Danny Boyle's SHALLOW GRAVE a few too many times; a suspicion bolstered by the inclusion of a completely gratuitous school bully with, of all things, a Scottish accent. However, Schwartzman quickly finds his angst-ridden yet cocky character again. Whether this promising debut implies an interesting career ahead of Mr. Schwartzman or years of typecasting remains to be seen.
Olivia Williams looks noble and misty as the teacher and love object of the two misfit males, but has little to do other than look aggrieved and weep over her dead husband. The film belongs to Schwartzman and Murray, and they tuck it neatly under their talented arms and run with it. Also of note is young Mason Gamble (DENNIS THE MENACE) who portrays Max's young friend with a deadpan gravity far beyond his years
RUSHMORE is clever without being funny, original without being groundbreaking, and even sweet without being maudlin. In other words, it is a completely uncategorizable film. While not quite deserving of the hype it has received, it's certainly a worthy alternative to the slop Hollywood seems determined to dish out on a regular basis.
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