Film: Murray, king of the nerds

The Big Picture
RUSHMORE (15) DIRECTOR: WES ANDERSON

STARRING: BILL MURRAY, JASON SCHWARTZMAN AND OLIVIA WILLIAMS. 94 MINS

In a year which seems to have featured a high-school flick every other week, it would be tempting to dismiss Rushmore as just another addition to the genre. This would be a mistake. Adolescent tragi-comedy, neurotic-romantic triangle, a study in loss and loneliness, Wes Anderson's astounding picture holds all this and more within its short but strangely elastic reach. It's a movie that deserves friends.

One of its more remarkable tricks is the way its slightly unappealing schoolboy protagonist insinuates himself into our affections. Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a 15-year-old busybody in glasses and braces who pretends that his father is a neurosurgeon (he's a barber) and lies about getting sexual favours from his best friend's mother. He attends a posh private school, Rushmore Academy.

"Attends" is inadequate: Max practically runs the place, overseeing every extracurricular activity from bee-keeping and calligraphy to kung fu and cross country. He runs the debating team, the golf club and something called "the Bombardment Society", not to mention his pride and joy, the Max Fischer Players. Indeed, he secured his scholarship on the basis of a play - "a little one-act about Watergate" - which impressed the headmaster.

Max's energy and can-do also impress Mr Blume (Bill Murray), a disaffected tycoon with a failing marriage and twin sons he loathes almost as much he loathes himself. "What's the secret, Max?" The boy considers: "I think you've just got to find something you love to do, then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it's going to Rushmore." Too bad, then, that Max can't make any of his grades; too bad that he's threatened with expulsion from his beloved alma mater. And too bad that both he and Blume both fall for the same first-grade teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a young woman who is still grieving the recent death of her husband.

In their competition for Rosemary's love, we see how similar Max and Blume actually are. Both rivals are outsiders, closet romantics and idle dreamers. And both want what the other cannot have: Blume longs to be a kid again, while Max is just a little too determined to imitate adult self-possession. The mask finally slips when he invites Rosemary to dinner and she turns up with her boyfriend. "Who's this guy?" says Max, with unmistakably adolescent rudeness.

The scene is typical of the way Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson tend to look embarrassment right in the eye; they want us to like Max, but also to blush for him. The young Jason Schwartzman does tremendous work in this regard, mastering a poker face (he doesn't smile lest he reveal his braces) and nursing a mean streak that threatens to turn psychotic. He perfectly catches the poignancy of a character who understands his failings but hasn't yet the emotional resources to conquer them: "People hate me," he observes.

There's an even better reason to see Rushmore, and its name is Bill Murray. Traditionally, Murray's forte has been the emotional turnaround, the guy who starts out as an arrogant shit and then surprises himself with humanity - Groundhog Day is, truly, his life's work, and (in my humble opinion) the greatest comedy of the Nineties. Here he starts out as defeated, passes through broken and forlorn, before arriving at a kind of hapless gratitude. It's not just his mournful clown's face that conveys a lifetime of depressed achievement (he's a millionaire, after all); just look at the scene in which, without a word, he goes from listlessly throwing golfballs into a swimming pool to climbing heavily on to the top diving board, a glass of scotch in hand - then tucking himself into a cannonball to hit the water with an almighty splash. The camera follows him underwater, where he lolls in Graduate-like isolation. It's a model of compressed resignation, and somehow you feel that only Murray could pull it off. (It's like the great shot of him in Groundhog Day calmly upending a coffee pot straight down his gullet.)

In truth, I've seen two Rushmores. The first time was in a packed Manhattan movie theatre last Christmas, when I whooped along with everyone else and returned to tell friends what a treat they had in store. Eight months on, I saw it again this week in a screening room full of critics, and there was barely a chuckle, either from them or from me. Once more I admired Murray, Schwartzman and Olivia Williams's lovely, understated performance as the object of their affection; once more I thrilled to the film's jukebox medley of rowdy Sixties Britpop - The Who, the Stones, The Faces, The Kinks; once more its conflation of adolescent angst and midlife crisis struck me as quirky, intricate and highly original. So what was different?

Well, you could talk about niggling inconsistencies in Max's character - how, for example, does his continual flunking of exams square with his intellectual superiority? How come a loner is at the gregarious centre of school life? You may also experience longueurs in the last third as Max's obsessive behaviour starts repeating itself.

But these are footling objections. What I found curious about Rushmore the second time around was my disinclination to laugh. Perhaps it's a darker film than I first realised; scrutinised more soberly, it looks odds on that Murray's character is a suicide waiting to happen. And Max, you suspect, may well go into politics. In any case, the repeat viewing left me bemused rather than exhilarated, and the film's oddball humour no longer touched the funny bone. It seems unfair to pull the plug on the goodwill one feels towards a movie simply because one enjoys it less on a revisit.

You might argue that most contemporary movies barely deserve one viewing, let alone two. Sadly, I can't unsee that second time, and it will serve as a warning in future. But go to see Rushmore once, and enjoy.

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