RUSHMORE

Directed by Wes Anderson

Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson

With Jason Schwartzmann, Olivia Williams, Bill Murray, Brian Cox, Seymour Cassel and Sara Tanaka

***1/2


I've seen RUSHMORE three times, and it stands up very well to repeated viewings. Wes Anderson's 'Scope framing contains a wealth of detail that's not easy to pick up on at first. (Only this time around did I notice that a family portrait shows the son's mouth frozen into an ugly grimace.) Its wit is immediately striking, but the insight behind the laughs only becomes apparent later. Anderson and co-screenwriter Owen Wilson's gift for dialogue isn't as rare as their ability to integrate comedy with character study. THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY was greeted in some quarters as a new comedy classic on the level of SOME LIKE IT HOT, but in its uneven rhythm, set-piece structure and willingness to sacrifice narrative plausibility and character development for the sake of a gag, it's pure television, while RUSHMORE is a true film, one that knows how to use the expressive potential of the widescreen frame to the fullest.

Rushmore is the exclusive private academy attended by Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzmann), a working-class teenager admitted on a scholarship. A playwright/director and the head of about 15 after-school clubs, Max is also an academic underachiever on the verge of flunking out. He becomes enamored of grade-school teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), as does wealthy, depressed factory-owner Mr. Blume (Bill Murray). Once Max does indeed get kicked out of Rushmore, the two men become bitter rivals, making fools out of themselves in their desire to woo Miss Cross and hurt each other.

It may not be immediately apparent, but RUSHMORE traffics in the same kind of decade blur as BLUE VELVET and PULP FICTION. The play that got Max his scholarship was about Watergate, and two of the three plays we see performed are inspired by SERPICO, THE DEER HUNTER and APOCALYPSE NOW, while his father is played by Cassavetes vet Seymour Cassel. He writes his plays on a portable typewriter - a gift of his late mother - rather than a computer. The film never states overtly that Mr. Blume's experiences in Vietnam are linked to his depression, but it's easy to make the connection. The soundtrack is filled with British rock of the 60s and early 70s, including relatively obscure songs by the Who, Kinks, Rolling Stones and John Lennon. There's another kind of blur at work: although the film was shot in Texas, there are no obvious markers of place. No one speaks with a Texan accent, while several major characters are British and Max plays a tape of French pop to woo Miss Cross.

Wes Anderson is 29, and while he might seem too young have fond memories of the 60s and early 70s, BOOGIE NIGHTS director Paul Thomas Anderson is even younger. Obviously, RUSHMORE doesn't actually take place in the 70s - for one thing, Mr. Blume would be about 20 years too old to be a Vietnam vet - but I'm not entirely sure it takes place in the present. Even so, it's not an exercise in nostalgia or even a postmodernist pastiche. Songs like the Rolling Stones' "I Am Waiting" and the Who's "A Quick One (While She's Away)" haven't become dated to the extent that "Satisfaction" or "My Generation" have; it's still possible to respond to them as music, not as 60s touchstones. (Anderson's debut, BOTTLE ROCKET, used music from Love's 1967 masterpiece FOREVER CHANGES in a similar manner.) Kent Jones has described BREAKING THE WAVES, another film that makes extensive use of non-diegetic music, as "a perfect realization of a musical/landscape fusion that existed in Lars Von Trier's head and that he guarded preciously for many years " and I get much the same feeling from RUSHMORE. Rather than being nostalgic, these reference points are a testament to the fact that these songs and films can still speak to someone like Anderson (and, implicitly, to Max.)

Anderson and Wilson get a certain type of male personality down so well that I'd be amazed if RUSHMORE isn't at least partly autobiographical, yet they're also able to examine it with a certain amount of distance. (The opening scene is a dig at the revenge-of-the-nerds male fantasy of GOOD WILL HUNTING.) This is a coming-of-age tale, but it isn't satisfied simply to show a portrait of the artist as a young man. Max is the kind of guy who relates much easier to art than to people, and he seems oblivious to the foolishness and desperation behind his behavior. Even in the face of his worst failures, he puts up a confident, willful facade. (He only shows signs of his vulnerability on occasion, as when he cries upon getting kicked out of Rushmore.) This force of will leads to a tremendous arrogance, but it also keeps him hopeful: an optimism that's eventually rewarded.

There's very little that makes me cringe as much as seeing marketers and/or middlebrow critics describe the worst sentimental, manipulative dreck as a "triumph of the human spirit." All proportions guarded, it's similar to the way politicians have made "family" a word as hateful as "faggot" or "nigger." Nevertheless, RUSHMORE is my idea of a feelgood movie. Like the best comedies, it acknowledges anxiety and pain, even tragedy, as constants but suggests that it's still possible for damaged lives to be mended. In its final scene, the democratic implications of Anderson's use of widescreen long-shots finally become explicit. This scene, which reunites every face we've seen in RUSHMORE, has the cathartic force of the final moments of EXOTICA. I think Renoir would have been proud to film it.