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by: Scott Renshaw

Wes Anderson has the kind of comic sensibility that keeps you watching just so you can see where he goes next. His debut feature BOTTLE ROCKET married bone-dry wit to good-natured character study in a tale of would-be thieves whose inbred suburban politesse limits the effectiveness of their crime spree. Though the humor was often absurd, Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson never sacrificed character for the sake of an easy joke. You got the feeling that they had a genuine affection for their creations, that they respected the grandiose lengths to which they took their dreams even as they chuckled at the results.

It's that same sensibility that makes RUSHMORE such a quirky delight -- it's a uniquely oddball comedy that's still about people. One of those people is Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a 15-year-old student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy whose several dozen extracurricular activities don't quite make up for his complete disinterest in academics. His latest extracurricular interest is Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a first-grade teacher at Rushmore with whom Max is instantly smitten. In an attempt to win her affections, Max enlists the aid of his friend Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a millionaire industrialist, to build an aquarium at the school in Miss Cross's honor. Unfortunately, Max soon finds Blume turned from ally to competitor for the fair lady's heart, beginning a strange war between the two.

It would have been easy enough for Anderson to turn RUSHMORE into an ever-escalating, bigger-must-be-funnier battle of pranks. Instead, he spends plenty of time getting us inside the messed-up heads of his two central characters. In a telling first scene, we see Max daydreaming about solving a brain-cracking geometry problem and receiving a grand ovation from his classmates. Like a typical teen, Max is concerned with how others see him; unlike a typical teen, his concern manifests itself in an obsession with grand gestures, with being perceived as important. He lives and breathes for Rushmore because it gives him an impressive stage to found dozens of clubs, produce his overwrought plays and forget that he's the son of a barber. As splendidly portrayed by first-time actor Schwartzman, Max's egomaniacal infatuations -- first with the school and then with Miss Cross -- come off as the sweetly immature behavior of a kid trying way too hard to appear mature.

There's plenty immature about Herman Blume as well, imbued with an aura of pure defeat by Bill Murray. Unhappy with his wife and sadistic teenage twins, Blume longs for the simpler troubles of youth. His betrayal of Max to begin his own romance with Miss Cross could have made him a villain; instead, his behavior indicates a man returning to typically childish inconsiderate acts like stealing his best friend's girlfriend. Though the destructive salvos exchanged by Max and Blume are wonderfully funny, they're also ridiculous because of the players involved: a kid working desperately to be an adult, and an adult working desperately to be a kid.

With a foundation in those two marvelous characters, RUSHMORE is free to let its comedy swoop from the sublime (Max appearing in the darkened back seat of Blume's car like a double-crossed mafioso, cigarette glowing ominously) to the ridiculous (Max's stage re-creation of Vietnam). Anderson shows an equal facility for off-kilter compositions and deadpan dialogue (Max to Vietnam veteran Blume: "So...were you in the sh*t?"), combining for one of the smartest comedies you'll see. Anderson and Wilson do bite off perhaps a few too many plot threads -- the friendship between Max and his young Rushmore "chapel buddy" (Mason Gamble) doesn't really go anywhere -- but there are so many deft comic touches that the less interesting elements are somehow diluted. At its core, the narrative of RUSHMORE is quite conventional stuff about people who lea


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