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Rushmore

Review by Elias Savada
       
Posted 11 December 1998

  Directed by Wes Anderson.

Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray,
Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel,
Brian Cox, and Mason Gamble.

Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson

Off-kilter sweet and hopelessly romantic, with a dash of acne and a heaping of dark gray matter, is Rushmore, the new comedy from the director of 1996’s offbeat Bottle Rocket. That earlier, offbeat critical success featuring Home Fries’ Luke Wilson (popping up now with a brief cameo) is hereby followed by director and writer (with Bottle’s co-star and co-author Owen Wilson) Wes Anderson’s sophomore effort, a far from sophomoric tale of over/under-achievement gone strangely and hilariously amiss. After several favorable receptions at North American film festivals (Telluride, Toronto, New York), this $10-million film pops up for a short term, award-qualifying lease in New York and Los Angeles in mid-December before wider unreelings next February (although originally set for a release last summer). I don’t think this portrait of a businessman as a young student will walk away with any statues next year, but you might as well whet your whistle for something a little different than most Revenge of the Nerd clones. Mark your calendars accordingly for this freshly written and simply mounted piece of light entertainment.

Rushmore features newcomer Jason Schwartzman as 15-year-old Max Fischer, a daydreaming prep student at the Rushmore Academy, who is very short on grades but high on expectations and a parade of extracurricular activities (debate team captain, chess club, calligraphy, astronomy, Yankee Review publisher, ad nauseum). On the edge of expulsion, he is smitten with Rosemary Cross, a young, widowed first grade teacher with an interest in aquatic life. A forced meeting by the boy finds him at her beck and call (Some lemonade, Miss Cross?) in a relationship that sputters along in various directions, although none, ultimately, end to the poor schlep’s benefit. Olivia Williams portrays the instructor with grace and flippant dignity in a role that she’ll be more remembered for then that of Abby in The Postman, Kevin Costner’s last Waterloo. Schwartzman’s startling debut pits him against Bill Murray, sporting a harried, slept-in look, disorienting comb-over hairdo, and salt-and-pepper mustache as Herman Blume, a local business tycoon who looks like roses to Jason as a rich school benefactor, but is actually losing a battle with his wits, marriage, and a quest for infidelity. It’s quite a role reversal from his usual schtick and a welcome comeback from The Man Who Knew Too Little.

So, although Max’s one-act play on Watergate got him admitted to Rushmore, his academic career seems headed toward impeachment, as take-no-hostages headmaster Dr. Guggenheim takes a special interest in the student’s shenanigans. Scot Brian Cox fills the role with gusto (reminiscent of Jeffrey Jones in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), seemingly inspired from his roles as Chief Hatfield in last year’s Kiss the Girls and as the slimy Lyman Earl Collier in Chain Reaction.

The wonderful Seymour Cassel, a 40-year veteran of film and television, gives a memorably pure performance as Max’s dad (often adorned in one of those pull-down hunting caps), a barber by profession or neurosurgeon by prevarication. Just ask Max, one heck of a perpetual liar, yet a teller of tales whose charming allure catches the attention of the chain-smoking Blume. The boy sweet talks the industrialist into building a marine observatory at the school. Just a slight catch -- Max hasn’t told the school authorities of his plans and they go ballistic as he starts to dig up the baseball field. Rounding out the lead roles is Max’s sometime sidekick Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble, growing a few inches from his 1993 debut as Dennis the Menace), who pops in and out of a scene here and there, his gorgeous mom playing a pivotal role in the boys’ relationship.

It’s the battle of obsessive wits between Max and Herman as they vie for the affections of the lovely widow that makes this film a step above the rest. It gets downright nasty (in a perfectly funny way) as both chumps fall from grace and take the other to task. A mangled bicycle, a bee swarm, and "faulty" car brakes are just a few of the devices employed in their skirmish. Only later does the depressed pupil realize that "war does funny things to men." By then, horror of horrors, Max ends up demoted to Grover Cleveland High School, frantically trying to form a fencing team from an indifferent student body, while Herman gets dumped by his wife and twin sons. The rousing conclusion has our fledgling theatrical director mounting an explosive production about heaven and hell. My, oh my.

Director-writer Anderson appears poised for a jump up the ladder of success. Praise is also due his talented production staff -- cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, production designer David Wasco, editor David Moritz, and the music of Mark Mothersbaugh -- all happily returning from Anderson’s first film. Murray’s solid performance is a stand-out, while Schwartzman reminds me of a young Tom Cruise, sans Clearasil.


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