Wes Anderson's RUSHMORE is a work of comic genius. (And Bill Murray's not even trying to be funny.)

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published January 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

As the generation of film geeks whose baby sitters included Monty Python, Richard Pryor and the original cast of "Saturday Night Live" has risen to prominence in Hollywood, a new style of American film comedy has struggled out of its egg. At its best, it marries the extreme deadpan absurdism and blistering cultural satire that revolutionized comedy in the 1970s to a genuine affection for the classic genres of American movies. "There's Something About Mary," to take an obvious recent hit, doesn't depend entirely on its delirious comic sensibility, however delightfully unhinged (or embarrassingly juvenile) you find that to be. It's also a love story, an old-fashioned romantic comedy whose situations are played for laughs but whose central quest we know to be as pure and heroic as that of any medieval knight errant. Similarly, "Flirting With Disaster" is a road movie, and a mythic search for origin; "The Big Lebowski" is an L.A. neo-noir with a flawed antihero. (And don't get me started on "The Cable Guy," perhaps the most underappreciated mainstream film of the '90s -- if some underground director had made a homoerotic stalker comedy, he or she would already have been hailed as this decade's answer to David Lynch.)

Along comes "Rushmore," and, well, I don't know what the hell it is exactly, except that it's a work of loopy, original comic genius. Its setting is more or less contemporary, but it has the studied, almost diffident look of an early-'60s film about prep-school rebellion, and the hep-cat soundtrack to match (ranging from the Who and the Kinks to Paul Desmond and Zoot Sims). If this is possible, "Rushmore" is an understated paean to excessive passion, populated by an immensely enjoyable ensemble cast. Like any comedy that rises above the level of cheap ridicule, this story of an impossible boy's improbable high-school career has a core of sadness, even tragedy. But out of their central character's perhaps diagnosable dementia, director Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson (also the creators of the agreeable "Bottle Rocket") have constructed a sweet-tempered parable about how human beings tend to make the best of things, despite all the lies and petty cruelties they inflict on each other.

Maybe if you turned the Coen brothers or the Farrelly brothers (of "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary") loose in this "Dead Poets Society" setting -- and what could be more worthy of derision? -- you'd wind up somewhere on the same comic continent as "Rushmore." But Anderson and Wilson don't want to grind you up in the wood chipper or shove your head in the toilet bowl; their brand of deadpan has a delicacy and humanity that's all their own. For one thing, they get probably the finest screen performance of Bill Murray's surprisingly varied career as Herman Blume, a hapless, despair-ridden industrial tycoon. Herman may be a second cousin to Murray's familiar lounge-lizard sleazoid, but the actor never allows any of his trademark self-mocking knowingness to leak out. Oozing misery from every pore through his bad and expensive suits into the leather upholstery of his Rolls, Herman drinks and smokes incessantly and can't stand his wife or his thuggish twin sons. Early in the film he does a grotesque cannonball into his algae-green, leaf-clogged swimming pool and the camera lingers on him while he stays underwater as long as possible, clearly wondering why he should come up at all.

But Herman's misanthropic address to the student body at Rushmore, the fancy Houston private school he attended years ago, draws the attention of 15-year-old Max Fischer, Rushmore's current Wunderkind. Played with absolute and almost eerie conviction by remarkable young actor Jason Schwartzman, Max looks exactly like the Jewish bookworm geek who's certain to be the butt of every evil prank pulled at a place like Rushmore. But Max's great genius is his steadfast refusal to be a victim. He's determined, first of all, to be a glorious success. When Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), the lovely, oval-faced first-grade teacher at Rushmore, tells him she went to Harvard, the smitten Max replies blandly that Harvard is his safety school, in case he doesn't get into Oxford or the Sorbonne. And when fate, not long after Max's meeting with Miss Cross, pushes him firmly into loser-nutcase territory, he's determined to be a glorious loser-nutcase.

Max isn't always likable -- Schwartzman has the courage to make his manias often exasperating and sometimes unpleasant -- but his boundless ambition is tough to resist. He's a scholarship student who got into Rushmore because he wrote a one-act play about Watergate -- in second grade. Early in the film, he's producing his adaptation of "Serpico," complete with a toy subway train that rattles around the set; later, we're treated to a Tarantino-esque crime drama and, at the warmhearted conclusion, a high-explosive Vietnam yarn that resembles "Full Metal Jacket." In fact, Max's entire academic career is a no less ludicrous fiction. He's publisher of the Rushmore Yankee, captain of the debate team, president of the French club and involved in every other extracurricular activity from beekeeping to flying Piper Cubs to J.V. decathlon, but is on the verge of flunking out of school. He tells everyone his dad is a neurosurgeon (he's a barber) and, fatefully, claims that Mrs. Calloway, mother of a younger boy who idolizes Max, gave him a hand job.

To tell you more would almost be unfair: Let's mention that Max decides to pursue Miss Cross based mostly on a banal quotation from Jacques Cousteau, that he spends more than $8 million of Herman's money on efforts to win her heart and that when his |ber-Walter Mitty scheming only serves to bring Herman and Miss Cross together, he knows what role to play next -- that of a vengeance-crazed stalker. As this peculiar triangle turns sour, Herman continues to deteriorate, mixing drinks in a Diet Coke can in his vest pocket and lighting his next cigarette while still smoking the previous one, all without Murray cracking a smile. When Max -- expelled from Rushmore, rejected by Miss Cross and a failure as a maniac -- finally embraces existential defeat, we can feel confident that his dad (Seymour Cassel), his former sidekick Dirk (Mason Gamble), the spunky public-school girl with a crush on him (Sara Tanaka), Rushmore's Scottish bully (Stephen McCole) and the rest of the appealing cast will conspire to restore his boundless confidence.

You could argue, I guess, that the only things "Rushmore" has on its mind are hackneyed -- growing up is tough, and those of us who live too much in our own heads ultimately have to come to grips with the outside world. But comedy is largely about the journey, not the destination, and few contemporary comedies provide as weird and as generous a trip as this one. Max's hilariously skewed imitations of adult behavior ("I understand," he shrugs when Miss Cross tries to convince him his pursuit of her is inappropriate, "you're not attracted to me. C'est la vie!") remind us how much of our lives we spend performing roles that don't suit us, that make us feel ridiculous. In laughing at Max, we're laughing at our own vanity and pretensions, in their way as outlandish as his. Comedy can have no higher calling than that.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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