You may have seen the marketing for "Rushmore", labeling it as a 'comic sensation' and 'one of the best of 1998'. Unfortunately, neither of these statements are true. Though this quirky and dark film is meant to be subversive and funny, it fails miserably in execution, resulting in a ninety-minute excursion about nothing.
Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a brilliant 15 year-old student of the elitist Rushmore Academy, is your atypically ambitious underachiever. Though he is the son of a not-so-wealthy barber (Seymour Cassel), he is attending the prep school on a full academic scholarship. Furthermore, he is intricately involved in a number of extracurricular activities, from being president of a number of student societies to heading the Max Fischer Players, who perform plays written and directed by the young savant, such as "Serpico". Unfortunately, because of the amount of time spent on after-school activities, Max is faltering in his studies to the point of being put on 'sudden death academic probation' by the school's principal, Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox)-- expulsion is the price for one more failed test.
Meanwhile, Max cultivates a friendship with the school's wealthy benefactor, Herman Blume (Bill Murray of "Wild Things"). And while Herman has a net worth of over ten million dollars, his life is bereft of happiness, perpetually stuck in a loveless marriage and saddled with two ghastly children, who are also students at Rushmore. Max and Herman, with their complementary eccentricities and needs, manage to find solace in the other's company. However, this friendship becomes strained with the appearance of Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams of "The Postman"), a recently arrived grade one teacher at Rushmore. Even though she is nearly twice his age, Max falls head-over-heels in love with her, and sets out to build her a full-size aquarium on school grounds. Unfortunately, Herman also takes a liking to Rosemary, and the amorous rivalry leads to an escalating series of childish skirmishes between scholar and benefactor.
In many ways, "Rushmore" is similar to its main character, Max Fischer. While Max may think himself to be hip, smart, and amusing, his peers will argue otherwise. To the outside observer, this uneven film is hardly endearing and rarely amusing, and at times it seems director Wes Anderson (who made his mark with his debut feature "Bottle Rocket") is arrogantly indulging himself with the use of visual gimmicks and whimsical plotting. I'm sure at the time of the film's conception that the bizarre on-screen antics made perfect sense to Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson-- it would have been nice if they had let the audience in on the joke from time-to-time. Unfortunately, Anderson's indulgences bring the proceedings to a grinding halt on more than one occasion with several poorly constructed gags that either build-up too slowly or go on far too long. Furthermore, the plot never seems to build up to anything or know where it is going, and the final result is more like a pastiche of awkwardly connected comic sketches. And to top it off, the film's emotionally-flat denouement will have you asking yourself 'so what?'
In defense of "Rushmore", the only praise that can be offered is for the film's performances. Schwartzman is quite believable as the arrogant, manipulative, scheming, and spoiled brat, and somehow, his performance manages to elicit some audience sympathy for an otherwise despicable protagonist. Murray is quite low-key in his performance, and while it is certainly not over-the-top compared to his previous roles, it is well suited for the despondent and succinct nature of his character. Finally, Williams is an appealing love interest for the story, bringing the refined sense of tenderness that would believably attract the attentions of Max and Herman.
Now, if these three key players had been given material that would have allowed their respective talents to shine, and the film had been more adeptly executed, "Rushmore" would have lived up to the hype of its marketing. But alas, this follow-up from a couple of promising young film-makers ends up being crushed beneath its own weight.