"Best play ever, man." Rushmore Academy groundskeeper Mr. Littlejeans says this near the end of Rushmore, referring to Max Fischer's curtain-closing opus, Heaven and Hell. But he could be talking about the entire movie, which has, since its 1998 release, become something of a touchstone for a generation of young filmgoers who identify with Max and his idiotic, quixotic, psychotic quest to win the affections of elementary-school teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). Or at least to ruin cranky steel tycoon Herman Blume (Bill Murray) in the process. While Max's story is too singular to belong to anyone else (and director Wes Anderson sets that story in a timeless, fairy-tale land of its own), the pain and confusion of that tale is universal. Sure, not many people dabble in fencing, beekeeping, playwriting, calligraphy, debating, kite-flying and dozens of other idiosyncratic pursuits--we've pared our own interests down to facial-hair experiments and Law & Order reruns--but most have struggled with the desire to fit in, to be extraordinary, to be loved by someone impossibly out of reach.
As Max Fischer, Jason Schwartzman sets the geek-love gold standard for rebels with a cause, the heart on his blue blazer the only thing more prominent than his braces and horn-rims. It's a performance even dreck such as Slackers fails to tarnish, and that says everything. Given his relative unproductiveness since the release of Rushmore--video director Jonas kerland's speed-freak flick, Spun, and cousin Roman Coppola's CQ are next on the docket--Schwartzman remains virtually indistinguishable from Max Fischer; even his power-pop band, Phantom Planet, seems more like one of Max's teen projects than an actual group. (Doesn't help that Phantom Planet is little more than a handful of pretty-boy actor-types playing what the fine folks who run Buddyhead would call "four-car garage rock.") You almost wish Schwartzman had faded into the scenery after Rushmore, lest he ruin the pristine image he cultivated. Oh, well.
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Good as Schwartzman is, the movie really belongs to Murray's chain-smoking Herman Blume, a man whose life has been drained away by a philandering wife and two jackass sons, a man dropping from the end of his rope only so he doesn't have to let go of his whiskey-and-Diet Coke. Max is Blume's savior and his curse, a reminder of his lost potential, a spark that starts his engine running again, a beyond-his-years sidekick and a pebble in his wingtips. Murray's previous attempts to extract himself from straight comedy proved less than successful (The Razor's Edge was a noble failure, and Mad Dog and Glory was pretty much just a failure), but he hits all the right notes here, funny when he needs to be (delivering an emphatic, "Not in my house!" to a group of pint-sized b-ball players, for instance), tenderly awkward more than you'd expect. In Rushmore, Murray says more with a squint of his eyes and a drag on a cigarette than most actors can with a three-page monologue; though his affair with Miss Cross takes place almost entirely off-camera, Murray provides the audience more than enough lines to read between.
Anderson and his writing partner, Owen Wilson, fill in the rest of the blanks with a script so obsessed with detail, it rivals a serial killer's journal. Nothing--not one note of the soundtrack (a mix of British Invasion nuggets and Devo dilettante Mark Mothersbaugh's quirky score), not a single science-fair experiment or Max Fischer Players prop--is left to chance. And that, maybe, is where the real strength of Rushmore comes from. Other directors make movies, but Anderson creates entire worlds; he fills their closets and lines their bookshelves, puts paintings on the walls and cars in the garage. You can walk into Anderson's films, pick things up and play with them. He and Wilson don't just tell stories through words--they tell them through lives. If you want to be Max Fischer or Bottle Rocket's Dignan or one of The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson and Wilson have already handed out how-to guides. Rushmore might not be the best play ever--or movie, actually--but give Anderson and Wilson time. They'll probably do it eventually.