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Monday, December 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Rushmore
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Max Fischer, a sophomore at Rushmore Academy, has what might charitably be called a psychopathic devotion to extracurricular activities. He's on the debate team, the fencing team, the wrestling team. He's in the French Club, the Stamp and Coin Club, the Trap and Skeet Club, the Astronomy Society, the Calligraphy Society. Did I mention beekeeping? It's as if Max were determined to get his face on every single page of the Rushmore yearbook, of which he just happens to be the publisher. But what he really wants to do is direct--plays, that is. And since what Max wants to do, Max does, we're treated to a stage version of Serpico and (Francis Ford Coppola, eat your heart out) what appears to be a live-ammo reenactment of the Vietnam War. Something between a wunderkind and a wunderkindergartner, Max has delusions of grandeur so grandiose they take on a heightened reality of their own.

That goes for Wes Anderson's Rushmore as well. A sad yet hopeful youth comedy, it imagines a world full of wonderfully offbeat charm and, in doing so, makes our own world seem a little more offbeat, a little more charming. With his dull-witted face, his dark-framed glasses, his braces, Max would technically qualify as a nerd, but that's not the way he sees himself, so it's not the way we see him either. We see him as an overachieving slacker (for, truth be told, he's flunking all his classes)--what you get when you combine Bart Simpson with his sister, Lisa. He's Ferris Bueller if Ferris, instead of skipping school, had insisted on staying after school to design and build an $8 million aquarium for a first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams) he's developed a crush on. The teacher likes fish, you see, and Max likes the teacher. The rest is just a matter of working out the details.

The movie's plot, which winds like a top, has Max meeting Williams' Miss Cross just as he's being put on sudden-death academic probation. He also meets Bill Murray's Herman Blume, a Rushmore benefactor whose life seems as empty as Max's seems full. A poor kid who struck it rich, Blume sees himself in Max, a scholarship student who's tried to convince everybody that his father, a barber, is in fact a neurosurgeon. Through Blume, we start to pick up on the desperation behind Max's liberal arts education, the way he uses Rushmore's considerable resources as a way of plugging the holes in his life. And we start to pick up on the desperation behind Max's crush on Miss Cross, his own mother having died when he was 7. Anderson, who co-wrote the script with Owen Wilson, treads so lightly through Max's depression that, for the longest time, we confuse it with joie de vivre.

Anderson appears to be something of a tyro himself. His first film, Bottle Rocket, was a loving send-up of Mean Streets in which the streets, suburbia's finest, were anything but mean. The characters, like Max, were driven but not particularly good drivers. (The movie could have been called The Gang That Couldn't Think Straight.) And Anderson put them through their paces with almost uncanny assurance. The guy is apparently loaded with chutzpah. When Rushmore was completed, he called up Pauline Kael, who'd just gotten out of the hospital, and coaxed her into watching it at her local movie theater, which he rented for the occasion, passing the bill along to his studio. And when the venerable critic failed to muster the enthusiasm Anderson was expecting, he wrote the whole thing up for The New York Times--an act of revenge (full of respect and regret) worthy of Max himself.

Speaking of revenge, Max goes to war with Blume when he finds out that Blume also has a crush on Miss Cross, and that Miss Cross rather likes Blume. His facial features sagging with weariness, Murray's the perfect foil for newcomer Jason Schwartzman, who has a delivery so effortlessly deadpan you want to throw a shovelful of dirt on it. (Next to Blume, though, Max seems alive.) Schwartzman, a member of the Coppola clan (he's Talia Shire's son), turns in the kind of performance that can wind up defining a generation, as the young Dustin Hoffman's did in The Graduate. It's not a full, rounded performance--nor was Hoffman's, for that matter--but it captures something in the air these days, with irony supposedly giving way to something called post-irony. A Holden Caulfield for the '90s, Max loves the world more than the world loves him, and that drives him a little bit crazy.

Anderson pitches the movie perfectly. He doesn't make a bid for our sympathy, so we hand it over to him for free. Rushmore is never not funny, but it's never not sad either, and we surprise ourselves how much we care for Max when it's over. For he's basically just a kid who got handed a bad life story and decided to write himself a new script, and there's something heroic about that. Even if Max's visions are often vision-impaired, he has the relentless enthusiasm of youth, the desire to keep on reinventing himself until one of his inventions works. Rushmore is about Max growing up, accepting the fact that he's the sum of his inventions--an artist. In an interview, Anderson once compared his characters to the ones in Peanuts, the way they're absorbed in their own little worlds. Max is definitely broadcasting on his own frequency, but it's a frequency all of us can turn our dials to...and enjoy the show.

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