There are certain moviegoers (let's just call them "the great unwashed masses" for now) who hate surprises. They particularly dislike movies that they can't put a label on, ones that don't conform to the agreed-upon specifications for film entertainment. If it doesn't have chase scenes, love stories, odd couples, fishes-out-of-water, epic battles, Bruce Willis, or lots of booty action, then it just doesn't make any sense. Why would you want to see a movie you don't immediately recognize?
Certainly, there are plenty of good, solid, predictable movies released every year (what would the Oscars do without them?), but challenging people's expectations has become a dying art form among the major producers. Even at such indie-lovin' studios as Miramax or New Line, the bulk of their business is trading in clichés (gun-toting couples on the run, romantic slacker comedies, meaningful foreign films that examine life as we know it). But every once in a while, a new filmmaker slips through the cracks who manages to pop out something so different, so original that seeing it makes you recall why you bother going to movies in the first place: to be swept into somebody's unique vision of the world.
I distinctly remember the first time I saw Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (an odd experience for any 4-year-old), or Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, or the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona, or Richard Linklater's Slacker. That's not to say that all these films are of monumental cultural valuebut they are all vividly memorable because of their remarkably different ways of seeing things. How many major movies can you recall watching in the last yearnot just the titles, but the actual experience of seeing them? Uh Well This year, anyway, we've got director Wes Anderson's Rushmore.
Unpredictable, uncategorizable, and nearly unbelievable, Rushmore is (to use a label) an "offbeat comedy." But it makes its own rules as it goes along, until it finally supersedes its own sub-genre and becomes a singular film onto itself. Where most movies today have a genetic makeup that's all too recognizable ("It's Die Hard meets Alien on a boat."), it's difficult to say what Rushmore's antecedents might be (Harold and Maude? Heaven Help Us?). Anderson (along with co-writer Owen Wilson) has a sense of humor, timing, and character that's uniquely his own.
Rushmore's storyif that's what you want to call itis ostensibly about the infatuation of one Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a 10th grade student at Rushmore Academy, for one of the private school's teachers, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). But Max is no ordinary 15-year-old. Although a rather poor student who's nearly flunking out, he has made Rushmore his raison d'être; his every joy is derived from hyper-extra-curricular activities. He's the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook; president of the French club; captain of the fencing and debate clubs; founder of the Double-team Dodgeball Society; and director of the Max Fischer Players, for whom he's currently producing a stage version of Serpico. He is a boy who's arrogantly sure of his genius, and wants to show it off in so many ways that he's doesn't even consider the limitations of childhood. When the schoolmaster calls him on the carpet for his bad grades, he doesn't just beg for mercyhe negotiates like an agent working a book deal.
Max's universe is doubly rocked by the appearance of the rosy-cheeked, British-accented Miss Crosstruly, his female ideal. He must have her. The thought that she might not be attracted to a pre-teen boy barely crosses his mind. To impress her, he enlists school benefactor Mr. Blume (Bill Murray) to give him start-up money to erect an aquarium (she likes fish). His plan is foiled when: A. he gets expelled for trying to erect the aquarium on the school's baseball diamond; and B. Blume also falls in love with Miss Cross. Thus begins a battle between the two for her love.
Rushmore rests almost entirely on the shoulders of its star, first-time actor Schwartzman. His Max could not be a more perfect picture of juvenile weirdnesshe's simultaneously brainy, cocksure, socially inept, insecure, and completely guided by his obsessions. He's in a state of arrested adolescenceeven though he's still an adolescent. You could say Rushmore is a character study of Max, with the trimmings of a rivalry plotlineand indeed, Murray's demoralized, equally immature Blume makes for an entertaining opponent. But it's Schwartzman who steals the show and saves Rushmore from being just another quirky film gone flat, making it a laugh-out-loud look into a young boy's strange world.
Humor, of course, is in the funny bone of the beholderthere's nothing more difficult to capture on film, often lost in translation from page to screen. But Wes Anderson has managed to realize his cockeyed sense of wit for the second time (the first being his debut, Bottle Rocket). If mainstream audiences more comfortable with talking butts just don't get it, tough. Let's just hope there's enough offbeat viewers who do so Anderson can continue to surprise us.