Class of one

Film 2 - Jonathan Romney welcomes a school movie with a difference

A measure of the oddness of Rushmore is the director Wes Anderson's introduction to the published script, co-written with Owen Wilson. Anderson doesn't discuss the film at all, but instead tells a rambling, somewhat awestruck tale of how he persuaded the veteran critic Pauline Kael to come to a screening he arranged for her. Kael apparently didn't like the film much, munched her way through the cookies provided and advised him that Wes Anderson was a terrible name for a movie director.

You can see how Kael might have been bemused. Rushmore feels like neither one thing nor another - too patchy, digressive and wayward for an efficient Hollywood comedy product, yet smarter, punchier and more benign than the average US independent movie. It seems to have been made with no target audience in mind, but purely for the perverse amusement of its makers and any kindred spirits. The film, in fact, is as imaginative and compelling a misfit as its hero, Max Fischer, played with steely but effusive malevolence by Jason Schwartzman.

Max is a nightmare version of American can-doism, like a 1950s over-achiever anti-hero transplanted into the wrong decade. A fish-out-of-water alumnus of the exclusive Rushmore Academy, a private boys' school whose values he cherishes like a religion, Max is president of every society from the Debate Team to the Model United Nations, as well as actor-manager founder of the Max Fischer Players. But he's also an academic disaster and threatened with expulsion.

That situation alone could neatly lend itself to a one-gag comedy of the Farrelly Brothers (There's Something About Mary) ilk. But Rushmore, having made one point, forever rushes on. Max acquires a guru and surrogate father in the shape of self-made industrialist Blume, whose teachings ("Get them in the crosshairs and take them down") strike a terrible chord. Then both Max and Blume fall for the high-minded new English teacher, Miss Cross (the English actress Olivia Williams, fully recovered from the extraordinary farrago of Kevin Costner's The Postman).

As narrative situations pile up almost uncontrollably, Rushmore becomes too diffuse to be categorisable as simply a character study or a satire on the American success ethos. It feels at times like a shapeless concert party at which we're entertained variously with off-beat characterisations and ludicrous production numbers (a routine with angry bees, Max's insane stage production of a blood-and-thunder Vietnam extravaganza). Blume is played by Bill Murray at a staggering new level of world-weariness to top even his weatherman in Groundhog Day. He's a man who's had it all, digested it uneasily and now drags life's experience around as weightily as his sagging jowls. As for Max, Schwartzman's oddball demeanour sometimes makes his character look like a fancy-dress routine - prissy bow ties, berets and velvet suits, a horrific joke on fogey geekiness. But, given time, Schwartzman unfolds a memorable monster of insecurity and desire. When Max's father comes along - an unassuming barber played by the always majestic Seymour Cassel - the film really takes off, and a whole new acreage of Max's character opens up.

I'd hesitate to call Rushmore a great new American film: it doesn't stop you in your tracks in the same way that, say, Happiness does. But it is a great anomaly, a film that makes you look twice and scratch your head in puzzlement over where it's come from and where it's going. Despite the school setting, it has next to nothing in common with this year's highly variable slew of teen and high-school pictures. It barely seems to belong to the 1990s, with its secluded academy setting (it was shot partly at Anderson's own alma mater) and eccentric soundtrack of 1960s British invasion hits (The Creation! Unit 4 + 2! Chad and Jeremy, for God's sake!). And it confounds altogether the usual expectations of how fresh, young American directors are supposed to be original. Even a film of pure dissent such as Todd Solondz's Happiness fits some sort of recognisable pigeon-hole in its sardonic, unforgiving blackness. At the other end of the spectrum, the prevalent standard for street-smart invention is best exemplified by the speedy, rave-attuned, mall-culture mood of Doug Liman's wild-weekend fantasy Go, soon to be released here: exhilarating but empty, it's in every way a fast-food flick, a movie-to-go.

Out on a limb of its own, Rushmore feels whimsically pensive, quietly industrious and a touch old-fashioned (it has rightly been compared to Elaine May's comedies of the early 1970s). Anderson may not incline to the deep, dark statement, like Solondz, or to polished pulp, like Liman. On the strength of Rushmore (his first film, Bottle Rocket, is yet to be seen in Britain), I'd see him more as the high-quality comic novelist whose oblique touch all too easily gets him overlooked. But the idea of someone continuing to make comedies this oblique and intelligent fairly gladdens the heart. And, all respect to Pauline Kael, but Wes Anderson's a rather snappy name for a director, I'd say.

"Rushmore" (15) is on general release; the script is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99

This article first appeared in the 23 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, No Jews on their golf courses