Rushmore (1998)

D: Wes Anderson
S: Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams, Bill Murray

Disarming, surreal comedy following the adventures of precocious fifteen year old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), king of extra curricular activities at an exclusive school, who falls for young teacher Olivia Williams and finds himself in all kinds of trouble. It sounds like a formulaic eighties high school comedy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though it has the same generic roots, Wes Anderson's off-the-wall direction makes the film more like a cross between Jonathan Demme and Luis Buñuel than John Hughes and Jane Austen. Actors speak directly into the camera, the world behind them subtly distorted by Robert Yeoman's cinematography, their conversation and actions like the stuff of some strange nightmare: a combination of impossible honesty and incredible fantasy which somehow feels real enough to be just about believable. It has a directness which few films even attempt and it is concerned with themes and issues which seem important to its makers, yet it is also elusive, stylised and so deliberately strange that it prompts the viewer to respond with a combination of tongue-in-cheek tolerance and serious engagement.

It is a recognisable contemporary America within which questions about the state of the Union might be addressed, but one viewed through the filter of its central character, whose concerns are much simpler. Son of a barber whose house is beside the graveyard where his mother is buried, Max claims to be the son of a neurosurgeon, writes stage adaptations of literary and filmic works with production values above many low-budget movies, and is so unflappable that he attempts to cajole the ailing principal of the school (Brian Cox) into keeping him on scholarship despite his poor academic grades and the obvious wealth which surrounds him. As much a class satire as a variant on issues of romantic obsession and adolescent angst, Anderson and Owen Wilson's script is neither packed with one liners nor top heavy with observational schtick. The humour comes from the cumulative effect of exposure to Max's unique perception of reality, where the absurd is juxtaposed with the familiar and no one reacts as if anything extraordinary is going on. It is nonetheless a comedy of transgression, with Max crossing every conceivable boundary in his quest to achieve his goals, whether they be cultivating friendships with adults, organising every conceivable type of after school activity, the winning of Williams' affections, or attempting to build a multi-million dollar aquarium. Cleverly, he fails to achieve some of these goals, but he still comes out on top in a dramatic resolution which depends as much on hope and speculation as what you actually see on screen: a rare thing for an American comedy featuring teenagers.

Schwartzman is just right in the lead, radiating unnatural calm and control while looking like something out of Revenge of the Nerds. His actions are never predictable, though they are not unexpected, and he continually surprises and intrigues us. It is a difficult character to play, and he manages it well. Williams is good in support, again playing a character whose depths are somehow convincing despite being familiar, but who also manages at least one to-the-point outburst in Max's face which packs a dramatic punch. Like Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, the star supporting turn comes from Bill Murray, tapping a well of dark humour he has not evinced in some time as the middle aged businessman trapped by his success for whom friendship with Max is a mixed blessing. Playing a combination of physical comedy and surreal drama, he makes the character authentically haggard and emotionally torn. Matching Murray's characteristic deadpan to Schwartzman's was a genius of casting. There are also nice turns from Mason Gamble and Sara Tanaka as classmates in Rushmore and in Grover Cleveland High School respectively.

Rushmore is certainly a fresh and funny antidote to the rash of 'high concept' teen comedies based on literary classics which, in their own way, are as vacuous as the sex farces of the 1980s they supposedly offer counterpoint to. It is a genuinely interesting take on the genre, and while not breathtakingly original, it is at least original in approach, which is enough. It is not necessarily a film for everyone though, especially those in search of more conventional knockabout entertainment. It is rather an art-house, indie movie cross bred with popular entertainment, which may have difficulty finding its exact home in the contemporary cinemagoers' viewing palette. It is worth a look though, and is probably destined to become a cult favourite.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.