RUSHMORE (1998) *** 1/2
But this is no coincidence. It's got to be a spoof. The math genius, 15-year old Max Fischer, a 10th-grader at Rushmore Academy, triumphs at the blackboard only in a daydream. Max, probably the sole student on scholarship in that pricey school, is a disaster academically. But he's also the BMOC, the Big (though short) Man on Campus when it comes to clubs and activities. He runs, directs, presides over just about everything and creates what's not already there. The list includes the Rushmore Beekepers, the Dodgeball Society, the French Club, the Debating Team, the Fencing Team, the school's paper (as editor and writer),the yearbook... And of course, the Max Fischer Players. He mounts, directs and acts in plays written by --you guessed it-- Max Fischer. But you couldn't guess that the bits of two of his plays that we see are "Serpico" (filmed with Al Pacino by Sidney Lumet, 1973) and "Heaven and Earth" (filmed by Oliver Stone, 1993), The latter with stage explosions and it version of the classic photo of the raising of the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima 's Mt. Suribachi.
With delicious perversity, the makers of this movie saw to it that Max is not necessarily an ace within those activities. Better yet, he is not particularly liked by his schoolmates, except perhaps for much younger Dirk who follows him around, acting as his secretary or factotum.
Max, with his thick-framed glasses, braces on his teeth, natty school blazer and unexpectedly baggy khaki pants, is an original creation, too complex to sum up by the vague terms of "nerd" or "geek." We don't really ever get to know what makes Max tick, and that too, is a clever avoidance of cliches and simplistic movie psychology.
He does have major problems. Sublimely disregarding his terrible grades, he plans to go to Oxford. Instead, Rushmore's President Dr. Guggenheim (a name that echoes those of Marx Brothers farces), tells him that because of his academic record he's being dismissed.
Now Rushmore is the be-all for Max, his cocoon, his security blanket, his whole life. Landing in a standard (read, inferior) public high school is a horror. But I'm getting ahead of myself, trying not to give away too much of a story that is full of surprises.
Rushmore was filmed at St. John's School (in Houston) which director Anderson graduated from before going to the University of Texas where he met his collaborator Owen Wilson.
While at the Academy, Max meets chain-smoking steel tycoon Herman Blume (Bill Murray), an alumnus, a benefactor, and the father of two jock sons he doesn't like and who are now Rushmore students. His marriage is unraveling. Like Max, he is an unorthodox maverick. Like Max he brings the art of deadpan to new heights. The two males, one a child becoming a man, the other a man wishing to be a child, bond. This without superfluous elaboration.
In a book, Max finds a pen-written reader's quotation that impresses him. From library cards he tracks tracks down the writer. They become friends. She is first-grade teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) the 25-year old widow of an alumnus. Ms Williams' only other film was The Postman --not the Italian gem but Kevin Costner's latest flop. She reminds me of another English beauty (well, Anglo-Italian), her senior by 10 years Greta Scacchi. Williams has that special kind of fresh looks and sweet naturalness that makes it most understandable for schoolboy Max, whose sap is rising, to fall in love with her. But then, Herman follows suit. He is Blume in Love, to quote Paul Mazursky's 1973 movie. Can rivalry be far behind?
What has developed up to now, and what follows, is a marvelous comedy, linear yet rich in content ane episodes. The film's surface is very funny but some of its underpinnings are also serious, even sad. Its creators never misses a chance to show absurdism in real life and real life in absurdism. On the other hand, they pass up all kinds of gags and shticks that could be included as gratuitous additions that would burden and dilute the picture. It is sober filmmaking.
The performances are terrific. First-time performer Jason Schwartzman (Max), is the son of Talia Shire and her late lawyer-producer husband Jack Schwartzman (Lionheart, Never Say Never Again). Also the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, whose Apocalypse Now is partly parodied in one of Max's plays. Jason was 17 when the film was shot. One thing that required my suspension of disbelief was that his Max did look older than 15.
Jason's Max is charged with explosives. Like a land-mine: dynamite, but without obvious external signs. So is Murray's Blume, perhaps his best performance ever: restrained, intelligently minimalist, unrhetorical, discreetly multi-leveled, amusing yet poignant. No clowning here. Even the milking of some old gags of silent movies and screwball talkies takes a fresh approach --as when the preoccupied Blume puts a second cigarette to his lips; when he pulls a tiny branch off a tree, and the tree falls; when retaliations involve a bicycle and a Bentley.
The filmmakers are in perfect tune with their subject and their cast. They know exactly how not to insist, when to cut (most scenes are short),where to place a camera, which lens to use, how to avoid the TV-type closeups that infect so many features in attempts to add spurious intimacies. They know how and when to involve us, how much and how little. They don't try to make Max really crazy or poignant or even likable.
Anderson's first feature was Bottle Rocket (1996) which he wrote with his friend Owen Wilson. It was an expansion of an eponymous short (1994) by the same duo. The 1996 movie was not a commercial hit but does have a strong following. All of its collaborators (cinematographer, editor, production designer, music director) have the same fuctions in Rushmore.
I mentioned earlier a number of older movies, and for good reason. The tone and the strategies of Rushmore are original yet also have a "je ne sais quoi," a "something" that's very much in the spirit of a certain American cinema of the mid- 60s to the early 70s. Madness, irreverence, absurdism, gently (or not) anarchism. Not only The Graduate (67) but several, among which Dr. Strangelove (64), Mash (70), Brewster McLoud (70, with Bud Cort) and especially Harold and Maude (71, also with Bud Cort), even some aspects of films by Robert Downey, Sr., such as Putney Swope or Greaser's Palace. The older movie tactics are reinforced by the music, mostly from the 1960s' British Invasion.
The picture did the 1998 festival circuit with great success. It joins
the pantheon of contemporary films that are on list of our BBNMM (the Bring
Back the Ninety Minute Movie Society). Next time there ought to be an Oscar
in a new category, "Best Retro Movie of the Year." Just for Rushmore.