“I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you before,” says a fetching young teacher to Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the 15-year-old hero of Rushmore. Nor is anyone likely to meet anyone like Max in real life, and very seldom at the movies. As Rushmore begins, Max is a seriously overachieving student at Rushmore Academy, where he compensates for his stereotypically nerdy looks (thick-framed glasses, tinsel teeth) by joining and/or founding just about every organization at school. He devotes himself to writing and directing school plays with the zeal of a young Welles or Spielberg, putting on spectacular shows everyone will talk about for years. Meanwhile, he’s flunking all his classes. He’s a bright kid — some would say ingenious — but grades aren’t important to Max; for him, Rushmore is both his playpen and his canvas. Everything he does is meant to leave the indelible mark of Max Fischer.
Is Max insufferable? Sure, sometimes — and one of the surprises of Rushmore, a sort of cross between Amadeus and The Graduate, is that Max’s outsize ambition is often shown up for the narcissism it is. He’s a kid. He means well, but he also rolls right over everybody’s toes; he’s so focused on achievement he seems near-autistic at times. Director Wes Anderson, who also wrote the script with Owen Wilson (this is their second film, after 1996’s Bottle Rocket), risks alienating us: Max is obviously brilliant and just as obviously a case of arrested development, a boy who lost his mom at an early age and has thrown himself into distractions ever since. The movie is about what happens when he collides with another case of arrested development — tycoon Herman Blume (Bill Murray), who befriends this gangly kindred spirit but soon competes with Max for the affections of the aforementioned teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams).
Wes Anderson has a distinctive and unstable style; he likes the sound of different personalities clashing, different moods bumping together. In Bottle Rocket, a trio of suburban goofballs fancied themselves aspiring criminals; the story took the form of a road movie, and just when you thought the plot might tighten and thicken, it got slack and digressive (and vice versa). Rushmore is a much more successful mood-swing comedy, with moments of classic slapstick rubbing elbows with moments of painful candor. As in so many films about boy dreamers of all ages, the woman is the pinprick of reality that pops the balloon of male fantasy. Deflecting Max’s advances, swiftly bored with Herman, Miss Cross is the sanest voice in the movie, yet she, too, has her false ideal; she takes up with a hunky intern (Luke Wilson) for physical comfort but can’t help comparing every man to her late husband, whose memory she just about fetishizes.
Everyone is talking about Bill Murray, as if he’d never given a real performance before. Actually, he’s been building a solid rep as a born-again character actor and supporting player in films like Ed Wood and Wild Things, but it’s fair to say that Herman Blume is his first fully mature role (ironic, given Herman’s lapses of golf-ball-tossing, bicycle-wrecking childishness). The vaguely depressed father of twin sons who have more brawn than brains, Herman sees Max as both the smart son he never had and a younger, not-yet-disillusioned version of himself. Murray’s performance is mostly subdued, with flashes of adolescent contempt popping out like a switchblade (he has a hilarious boozy scene in a hospital elevator); Anderson and Wilson have written him a great role, and he brings it home effortlessly.
This is not to slight Jason Schwartzman, a rookie actor who more than holds his own with Murray, or Olivia Williams, captivating us even at her most brutally honest. Nor should we overlook Wes Anderson’s stylized brand of comedy (his main theme so far seems to be the folly of ambition), his pitch-perfect selection of oldies that heighten each scene, his odd use of widescreen for this small-scale teen movie, as if it were an epic on a par with one of Max’s excessive plays — it’s as if Max wouldn’t settle for anything less than CinemaScope. Rushmore is an ode to creative wunderkinder, who can be immature pains in the ass (just ask anyone who worked with Welles or Spielberg way back in the day); most movies wouldn’t exist without them, but they don’t exist in most movies.