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In 'Rushmore,' a Kid With Class

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 1999

  Movie Critic

Bill Murray (holding Sara Tanaka) stands between Jason Schwartzman and Olivia Williams. (Touchstone)

Wes Anderson
Jason Schwartzman;
Bill Murray;
Olivia Williams;
Seymour Cassel;
Brian Cox
Running Time:
1 hour, 33 minutes
For language
With rare exceptions, high school movies trade in stale characters: prom queens, football heroes, their bullying cronies and the myopic dorks who respectively aspire to date, hang with or thwart them. The genre's storylines, like last week's box-office champ, "She's All That," are as predictable as a pimple outbreak on the day they take yearbook pictures. "Rushmore" is actually a whole lot better than all that.

This weird, warm, monumentally entertaining comedy has its hotties and dweebs, yes, but none have transferred here from Hollywood High. They have their own quirks and surprising depth of character. No milk mustache models here. The students of Rushmore Academy wear braces, suffer bad hair and tend to have no common sense whatsoever.

Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), an endlessly resourceful 15-year-old with a genius for denial, is a prime example. A scholarship student at the exclusive school, Max overcompensates for his poor pedigree through extracurricular activities. He edits the school paper and yearbook, presides over the French, German, chess and beekeeping clubs, captains the fencing, debate and "double-team dodgeball" squads and directs a theatrical troupe known as the Max Fischer Players.

Of course all this leaves little time for study, and Max, whose grade point average has fallen off the curve, is placed on sudden-death academic probation by Rushmore's long-suffering headmaster (Brian Cox). Though the 10th-grader considers Rushmore his whole world, he never considers hiring a tutor or hitting the books.

Instead he responds by donning a beret and producing his hilariously overwrought stage adaptation of "Serpico." Then, upon learning that Latin is being dropped, he launches a campaign to restore the subject to the school's curriculum. Max is a young man of many fleeting enthusiasms. He even attempts to construct an aquarium in honor of Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), the winsome, widowed first-grade teacher with whom he has fallen in love.

Max acquires seed money for the project from Mr. Blume (Bill Murray), a sad-eyed steel tycoon whose loutish twins also attend Rushmore. Alienated from his obnoxious kids and his trophy wife, he discovers a kindred spirit in Max, bonds with the boy and regains his zest for life. Alas, the two friends become merciless rivals when Blume falls for Miss Cross, too. Mayhem ensues.

An inspired second feature from director Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, the picture shares the offbeat rhythms and disarming humor of their overlooked debut, "Bottle Rocket." That Gen-X crime caper never found an audience, but this wacky charmer has multi-generational appeal.

Schwartzman, the self-confident son of "Rocky's" Talia Shire, wins sympathy and a great deal of affection for Max, never mind that he could grow into Sidney Blumenthal. With his earnest, deadpan delivery and stocky stature, the leading lad is well-nigh a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman's Ben in "The Graduate."

This film's story also shares echoes with that 1967 film, but Williams's demure Miss Cross is no Mrs. Robinson. Though Max imagines the lovely Englishwoman performing unspeakably erotic activities with Mr. Blume, she still pines for her late husband and a past that overshadows her future.

Murray – vulnerable, but wickedly funny – captures the foggy desperation of middle age as well as Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" The answer, as he discovered in "Groundhog Day," is still yes. But that's okay if you meet life with Max's dogged can-do (even if you can't) spirit and irrepressible zeal. Who knows? One day you might find your face carved into Mount Rushmore.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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