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Review: 'Rushmore' a monumental achievement

Web posted on: Wednesday, December 16, 1998 5:27:10 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Believe it or not, back in January, the three movies that I was most excited to see when considering the oncoming slate of films for 1998 were Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan;" Terrence Malick's long-awaited return to filmmaking, "The Thin Red Line" (also a World War II drama, to be released on Christmas Day); and Wes Anderson's warm-hearted comedy of ill manners, "Rushmore."

The first two make sense to anybody who knows more than a little bit about movie directors, but Anderson is probably a cipher to most people. With any luck, that'll soon be changing. "Rushmore," which stars newcomer Jason Schwartzman and old pro Bill Murray (in a role that could garner him an Oscar nomination), may put Anderson on the map as one of our most original directors.

Of course, given the off-kilter perspective that Anderson and co-writer Owen C. Wilson (the star of Anderson's last film, the endearingly-quirky "Bottle Rocket") insist on bringing to their characters, its possible that a small-but-lucky audience will enjoy the movie tremendously, then it'll sink like a stone.

It's really hard to describe what "Rushmore" is about, much less convey the oddness of its comic tone, a formula that doesn't bode well for a box office bonanza. I, on the other hand, was hugely pleased that I couldn't pin it down. You've never seen anything quite like this before. And, even when you're done laughing your ass off over it, you probably still won't be completely sure what you've just witnessed.

A student's calling

Schwartzman stars as 15-year-old Max Fischer, a sophomore at a snooty prep school called Rushmore. Max considers attending the school to be the ultimate calling of his life, and has no intention of ever leaving. He may have no choice, though. He's a terrible student (his grades hover somewhere between low and high F's), but his extracurricular load is astounding.

The hilarious opening of the film outlines just how many frying pans Max has on the fire at the same time. He invents, then becomes the president of, a huge variety of clubs, everything from competitive backgammon to fencing to a theater group called The Max Fischer Players. (You won't believe Max's staging of a play based on the story of Frank Serpico.) Most of the other kids at the school hate his guts, but Max couldn't care less.

I think that the fencing reference is extremely important, by the way. Max seems to be a hyperactive version of "The Catcher in the Rye"'s Holden Caulfield (a failed manager of his former school's fencing team, if you'll recall). There are also several subtle visual nods to "The Graduate." This is the story of a young outsider who manages to mature while simultaneously utilizing the dirty-trick techniques that he's learned from the adults who surround him. He thinks he's in complete control, but it's more likely that he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Max is too smart and ambitious to ever be comfortable in the skin of a mere 15-year-old, but his ambitions (and misperceptions, which he considers to be crystalline insights) force him into the lives of people who would be much better off if he didn't even know them. To Max, interpersonal relationships are just another club that he fully deserves to be in charge of, and his gift for invention (i.e. his ability to lie at the drop of a hat) twists those relationships into an emotional pretzel.

Murray plays Mr. Blume, a listless steel magnate who has two boneheaded sons attending the school (some of the funniest gags in the movie revolve around Murray's undisguised abhorrence of his own children). Max is very taken with Blume when he hears him give an address in the Rushmore chapel, during which he urges the kids who weren't born with a silver spoon in their mouths to immediately take aim at the rich kids' fortunes when they get out of school. It's the kind of ambitious thought that Max appreciates, so he quickly strikes up an oddball friendship with the millionaire.

Underage love triangle

That friendship soon turns into a battleground, though, when both Max and Blume find themselves falling for Miss Cross, a pretty but lonely first grade teacher played sweetly by Olivia Williams. Max goes to amusingly great lengths to impress the teacher, who's probably twice his age, but it's no surprise when Blume is more successful in wooing her. He has an affair with her, which ruins his marriage and, not incidentally, endlessly torments Max.

Max takes this romantic setback as an affront to his domination of the world in general, so he proceeds to do the best he can to make life miserable for Blume. Then, just when you think the movie is going to turn into an unfortunate rehash of "The War of the Roses," Anderson and Wilson shift gears. Max finally starts to see the light, and sets into motion a healing process that helps all the participants in the "love triangle" (Max isn't really a part of the equation, when you get right down to it) grow up a little bit.

Murray, one of my favorite comic actors, is fantastic. He's always delivered wonderfully eccentric performances in dismal movies, so people have been able to ignore the fact that he's the most consistent actor ever to spring from the "Saturday Night Live" petri dish.

This time, though, he's working with a great script and a supporting cast that's fully up to the task at hand. The somber expression that Murray wears while intentionally backing his car over Max's bicycle is worth the price of a ticket all by itself. The star of the movie is definitely Schwartzman (he gets the most screen time by a mile), but Murray is the one who keeps it all from shooting off into the realm of pure fantasy.

It's still partial fantasy, though. Anderson plays with extras and locations in a way that recalls Jonathan Demme (back when he had a sense of humor) mixed with a dose of psychedelic mushrooms. There are bizarre touches throughout the movie, like the group of kids who angrily throw rocks at Max while wearing what look to be "Dungeons and Dragons" costumes, including one guy who's dressed like a wizard.

Even the smallest cast members give bone-dry line readings that would be funny even if they weren't funny, if you know what I mean. That the film ends with an explosive Vietnam battle acted out on stage by a cast of schoolchildren somehow makes perfect sense in Anderson and Wilson's twisted universe. It's nice to see a couple of filmmakers remind us once again that it's possible to be funny without kissing up to the idiots in the audience. Not that that's gonna stop anybody else.

"Rushmore" contains a little bit of profanity, and some of the jokes are a little mean-spirited, but all I can figure is an NFL ref gave it its R rating. I sure didn't see any evidence that it deserves one. 93 minutes.

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