`Rushmore' enchantingly chiseled

Review: Wes Anderson has made a lovable monument to quirkiness that carves its way into a viewer's heart.

February 19, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Rushmore" is a comedy for which the word "quirky" seems to have been invented.

This lovable little oddball of a film will appeal to audiences who can laugh at high-school plays adapted from Oliver Stone movies, and accept without a smirk the concept of a middle-aged man finding his best friend in a 15-year-old boy.

Told through the fish-eye lens of a teen-ager's obsessive, self-aggrandizing vision, "Rushmore" -- which often resembles a contemporized, bizarro version of "The Graduate" -- will also appeal to anyone who can find its nerdy hero enchanting, despite his grating eccentricities. Max Fischer, the protagonist of this idiosyncratic tale of young love, is the most captivating dork on screens right now.

Played to perfection by newcomer Jason Schwartzman, Max is a student at Rushmore Academy, a tony private school where he is flunking most of his classes but making up for it by joining or starting most of the school's extracurricular clubs. Besides heading an assortment of teams (fencing, wrestling, double-team dodge ball) and clubs (debate, backgammon, French, German, chess) Max has even founded the Max Fischer Players, who enact with passion and precision Max's ambitious stage adaptations of "Serpico" and the Vietnam epic "Heaven and Earth."

For all his school spirit, Max is still something of an outcast. His poor grades and outlandish stunts have gotten him into sudden-death academic probation, and the school bully, a cauliflower-eared Scotsman, has it in for him. When Max hears a local steel tycoon, Mr. Blume (Bill Murray), speak at the school's chapel, he is inspired. He befriends Blume, who is impressed by Max's gumption, and soon the two become fast friends and confidants.

When Max falls in love with a beautiful teacher, however, things get a bit stickier, especially when a war erupts between Blume and Max.

Directed by Wes Anderson, who wrote the script with Owen Wilson, "Rushmore" recalls the team's previous film, "Bottle Rocket," in its offbeat, deadpan humor and love of idiosyncratic exits and entrances.

Despite cute moments, nothing about "Rushmore" begs to be liked, which makes this modest comedy all the more satisfying. Murray, who has received several awards for his performance, proves his comic genius is predicated on a profound gift for understatement. He, like everyone else here, plays his part with gravitas, making "Rushmore's" goofiness not only palatable but crazily entertaining.

As much as Murray is to be admired for his work here, it's Schwartzman who turns in the most surprising performance. Blessed with a compulsively watchable face, even when it's hidden behind thick-rimmed glasses and a brace of braces, he cuts an improbably charismatic swath through the world.

"Rushmore's" more surreal elements may take some viewers aback at first. What are we to make of a grown man vandalizing a young boy's bicycle, or a poison pen letter worthy of Ben Hecht written in blue crayon?

But even such improbable moments as these make perfect sense in "Rushmore," which is essentially about the boys men become when they fall in love, as well as how a 15-year-old distills his journey to adulthood through his own theatrically heightened imagination.

In this fascinating realization of a boy's inner world, Anderson has cooked up a madeleine that is at once evocative and extremely peculiar.

`Rushmore'

Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams

Directed by Wes Anderson

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Rated R (language and brief nudity)

Running time 93 minutes

Sun score * * * *

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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