Despite the fact that he’s one of the worst students in Rushmore Academy, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the indefatigable teenage hero of Wes Anderson’s exuberantly original comedy Rushmore, has breathtaking self-confidence. He runs every extracurricular activity ever listed in a yearbook. And he’s got ambitious plans to win the heart of first-grade teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams, rescued from the dead-letter box of The Postman): He’ll build a huge aquarium on school grounds to woo her (Miss Cross loves fish), using funds he raises from one of the academy’s rich benefactors, a depressive steel tycoon named Mr. Blume (Bill Murray). That’s fine; Blume sees something of his young self in Max, and the two square pegs bond in their nonconformity. But then Blume gets interested in Miss Cross too. And that’s when the middle-aged fat cat and the 10th-grade geek become bitter competitors.
Anderson, who wrote Rushmore with Owen Wilson (as he did his previous oddball gem, 1996’s Bottle Rocket), is blessed with a vivid sense of humor and an artistic integrity unlike those of any other American filmmaker working today. Although there’s something essentially hilarious about self-serious, blue-blazered Max — and, for that matter, something unnervingly funny about Blume’s clinical unhappiness — the filmmaker treats eccentricity with the dignity such individualism deserves: no winking, no snickering, no egotistical elbow nudges to even like the boy. (Todd Solondz maneuvered a similarly complex response to Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse.)
Rather, Anderson concentrates on beautifully disciplined filmmaking, employing 1960s British Invasion hits by such giants as the Who, the Kinks, and Donovan to further define Max’s adolescent dislocation. He lets Max flourish to his maximum, and Blume bloom. Schwartzman — a gifted neophyte actor not counting the fact that as Talia Shire’s son, he’s another member of the Coppola entertainment dynasty — admirably avoids nerd cuteness. Murray, meanwhile, turns in a thrillingly knowing, unforced performance — an award-worthy high point in a career that continues, Max Fischer style, to defy the obvious at every turn. A