Rushmore (United States, 1998)
Rushmore is one of those films that's so inconsequential that its memory threatens to fade away before the end credits have finished rolling. The movie, co-written and directed by Bottle Rocket's Wes Anderson, is meant to be an offbeat comedy/drama about an unusual high school student who underachieves in classes because he spends all of his time on extracurricular activities. Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is universally recognized as a brilliant 15 year-old. That's the reason he was given a full academic scholarship to Rushmore, an elite California prep school. But, when he neglects his studies in favor of starting after-school clubs and producing oddball plays, he finds himself on "sudden death academic probation" - fail one more test and he's gone.
While continuing to irritate Rushmore's principal, Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox), with his eccentric behavior, Max becomes friends with Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a wealthy Rushmore alumnus who is impressed by the adolescent's drive and energy. Max also has a brush with romance when he falls head-over-heels for Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a teacher who's roughly twice his age. Rosemary tries to let him down easily, but Max doesn't take rejection well, and he turns hostile when he discovers that Rosemary is seeing Herman on the sly.
Rushmore is intended to be hip and funny, but it's not really either. Too few of the jokes work and the plot meanders without direction. The more interesting characters of Herman and Rosemary are shortchanged because of Anderson's infatuation with Max. However, while the director clearly wants us to like his young protagonist, that's almost impossible. Max is a schemer, a manipulator, a stalker, and an all-around despicable person. There's nothing remotely appealing about him. Maybe actor Jason Schwartzman should be given credit for playing this character too well. Max is a disturbed individual, and nothing about his antics is endearing or amusing.
For a while, it seems like Anderson might be trying to do his own version of Welcome to the Dollhouse. With Max, he certainly has the right sort of character, and much of the humor is in the same dark vein as Todd Solondz's. But the movie cops out with a happy final act and by turning Max into someone we're supposed to root for. Welcome to the Dollhouse is a brutally honest motion picture; Rushmore starts out as one, but quickly turns into a fairly standard tale of the outsider who's trying to triumph while everyone is out to stifle his creativity. Anderson doesn't do enough to make this common plot fresh.
At least the acting is solid. Schwartzman is entirely believable as the geeky Max. Bill Murray, who has only had limited success in the past with dramatic roles, slips effortlessly into the part of a laconic sadsack. While there's humor in the performance, Murray also generates a surprising amount of pathos. Olivia Williams, who starred as Kevin Costner's love interest in The Postman, is attractive and appealing. Small, supporting roles go to Seymour Cassel (as Max's father), Brian Cox, and Sara Tanaka (as a schoolmate with a crush on Max).
Although Anderson's debut feature, Bottle Rocket, was uneven, it contained moments of inspired comedy. That's mostly gone here - there are only a few scenes that provoke bursts of laughter, and it's mostly halfhearted. The drama brought in to plug the holes is less than remarkable, and barely able to hold an audience's attention for the relatively short 90 minute running length. Three years ago, when I wrote my review of Bottle Rocket, I closed with the following comment: "Wes Anderson and Owen C. Wilson show promise here; now, it's up to them to up the ante with their next feature." With Rushmore, Anderson hasn't taken that step forward. The film industry is littered with the bodies of those who have shown flashes of "promise" and "talent"; unless he does something with his, Anderson may be the next casualty.
Rushmore (United States, 1998)
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox, Mason Gamble, Sara Tanaka
Screenplay: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures