A wickedly funny high school comedy for most of its running time, “Rushmore” is a bracingly fresh and original sophomore outing from the director and writers of the little-seen critical fave “Bottle Rocket.” This tart tale of an audaciously clever prep school kid going over the edge because of an infatuation with a beautiful teacher has all the makings of a cult hit, and is already on that road after its strong reception at the Telluride Film Festival, with unspoolings at the Toronto and New York fests still to come. All the same, its somewhat brainy humor and serious take on the implications of its characters’ malicious activities set it apart from standard-issue teen comedies, and Disney will need to put some special effort into positioning the picture properly in order for it to find its audience, which could be substantial. Release is currently targeted for February.
Zingy picture is written, shot and performed with a precision and confidence that belie the youth and limited experience of its participants. The wacky humor is often off-the-wall and utterly unexpected, but is not of the shotgun variety in which gags are sprayed against the wall in the hope that some of them stick; with the exception of a lull around the one-hour mark, nearly everything hits the bull’s-eye here, a rarity in screen comedy these days.
Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) is one of the worst students at Rushmore Academy, a leafy private school populated by an inordinate number of snotty, offensive boys. Unable to apply himself to his studies, Max instead throws himself into extracurricular activities, inventing new clubs, teams and groups to head when he’s run out of existing ones. The precocious 15-year-old likes to think of himself as the equal of any adult, and distinguishes himself as a dramatist by putting on a brutal David Mamet-like play.
An odd duck who gets by on brash resourcefulness, Schwartzman’s Max, with his solid, short stature and dark hair, at times startlingly resembles Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” albeit with glasses, braces and a patched blazer. Like Benjamin, Max becomes infatuated with an older woman, in this case a lovely English widow, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), who teaches at the school and whose refinement sets her apart from everyone else around. Unlike Benjamin, however, Max is not invited into the woman’s bed, and thus begins the teenager’s descent into despair and vengeful behavior.
Max’s rival, as it turns out, is a local industrial tycoon, Mr. Blume (Bill Murray), the Bentley-driving father of the school’s two worst-behaved kids and one of the adults who early on recognizes Max’s special gifts. Blume even invests in one of Max’s more harebrained schemes, the construction of an aquarium on the school’s baseball field, which is what finally gets Max kicked out of Rushmore.
His sense of entitlement offended, Max is forced to enroll in the squalid local public high school, all the while trying to continue his after-school ties with Rushmore. When he finally realizes that Miss Cross is having an affair with Blume, he declares a war on his former friend that quickly escalates into a mean-spirited tit-for-tat exchange of ambushes with ugly repercussions.
One wonders where all this can be headed, and rightly so, since the picture hits a bit of a stall when Max himself bottoms out and begins cutting hair at the barber shop run byhis father (Seymour Cassel). Happily, Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson (who co-wrote and acted in “Bottle Rocket”), rescue matters with an inspired theatrical finale that regains the comic high ground of the first hour.
Everything about the film reveals the hand of a distinctive, sure-footed talent. The deep-focus widescreen compositions possess an unusual clarity that adds detail and endows the action and humor with exceptional vividness. The humor is disarmingly peculiar without being absurd, and the musical choices lean heavily toward late-’60s/early-’70s British pop and rock, reflecting Max’s infatuation with all things English.
Most crucially, the lead performances are aces. Schwartzman, the son of actress Talia Shire and the late producer-attorney Jack Schwartzman, is sensational in his film debut as a young guy who refuses to accept that he’s in way over his head. Thesp’s droll, deadpan delivery subtly suggests Max’s impatience with fools and sense of superiority to everyone save Miss Cross, and his unerring sense of timing bespeaks a natural gift for comedy.
For his part, Murray is seen to better advantage in a sustained turn than he has been in years, as the comic actor seemingly revels in Blume’s mercilessness while still conveying the man’s more serious and conflicted feelings about Max, as well as his own maladjusted family.
Williams, who was underappreciated for her work in the ill-fated “The Postman ,” will surely not escape notice this time out, as she is captivatingly beautiful and intelligent as the source of Max’s obsessive frustration. Kid supporting thesps are exceptionally cast, notably Stephen McCole as a sadistic Scottish thug, Sara Tanaka as an Asian-American girl who takes a shine to Max at the public school, Mason Gamble as Max’s toady at Rushmore and Ronnie and Keith McCawley as Blume’s obnoxious sons.
Set largely on the lush Rushmore campus, pic has a nice East Coast feel but was actually shot at Anderson’s alma mater, St. John’s School in Houston.