Bill Murray drops the smirk that has always been his comic armor and gives an indisputably great performance in Rushmore by blending his sly humor with subtle feeling and surprising gravity. As Herman Blume, a steel tycoon with a cheating wife and teenage twin sons he hates almost as much as he hates himself, Murray artfully digs for signs of life in a character who thinks his soul is dead. No wonder Touchstone Pictures opened Rushmore for one week in December to qualify Murray for an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Just don't mistake Rushmore — opening nationwide in February — for a one-man show. Whether you see the film as a slowed-down farce or as a souped-up tragedy, Rushmore is packed with richly realized characters. Take Max Fischer, smashingly played by newcomer Jason Schwartzman (son of actress Talia Shire and nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola). Max, a fifteen-year-old misfit in glasses and braces at snooty Rushmore Academy, is befriended and then betrayed by Herman, a school benefactor. When both fall for first-grade teacher Rosemary Cross (the magnetic British actress Olivia Williams), Max and Herman try to kill each other. Rushmore manages to pay tribute to movies as diverse as The Graduate and Apocalypse Now and still brim over with the pleasures of the unexpected.
Credit the film's startling originality to director Wes Anderson, 29, and his co-screenwriter, Owen Wilson, 30. These friends from the University of Texas — they made an auspicious 1996 debut with the cult caper Bottle Rocket — have an unrushed knack for character development that doesn't translate into tedium. Anderson fills each frame of his rigorously constructed fable with detail. That extends to a terrific soundtrack of British Invasion hits — Cat Stevens, the Kinks, the Faces, the Who, the Stones — that catches the anger roiling under Rushmore's placid exterior. On subsequent viewings, the plaintive subtext of even the funniest scenes becomes readily apparent.
At first, Max comes off as a comic irritant — too many extracurricular activities and too few passing grades from a geek who wears an attitude of unearned superiority. Then there are Max's lies: His father, Bert (the excellent Seymour Cassel), is a barber, not a neurosurgeon; and Max did not get a hand job from the mother of his chapel partner, Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble), or any sexual encouragement from Miss Cross, whose feelings for Max are maternal. Max's mother died of cancer when he was seven. That fact is rarely discussed except in reference to the Rushmore scholarship Max won, just before his mother's death, by writing a short play she loved about Watergate. Yet it helps explain Max's link to Rushmore and his sense of loss at being expelled for trying to build Miss Cross an aquarium on the school's baseball diamond. You laugh at Max's blundering, at his revenge on Herman, at his hurt feelings when Miss Cross brings a date (Luke Wilson) to his play about Serpico. Max's school dramas, set in cities or jungles, always end in shootouts. (Anderson says he directed plays just like Max's at his alma mater, St. John's, in Houston, where Rushmore was filmed.) Despite his follies, Max earns our affection and our grudging respect. The same goes for Herman, a former poor boy and a Vietnam vet ("Yeah, I was in the shit"), who recognizes a fellow outsider in Max. For suggesting that his sons invite Max to their birthday party, Herman is told, "Pull your head out of your ass, Dad. There's gonna be girls there." It's a hoot to watch Murray's deadpan rage as he casually turns from the wheel of his Bentley to pummel his son in the back seat.
Later, Murray cannily crowds a lifetime into one small scene. As Herman distractedly throws golf balls in the pool, he notices his wife at another table, flirting with the tennis pro. Cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, Herman heaves his way to the diving board, casts a look of disdain at his family and jumps, the camera noting his sad isolation at the bottom of the pool. The scene has no dialogue, only a Kinks song ("Nothin' in This World Can Stop Me Worryin" 'Bout That Girl") that catches just the right note of resignation. No wonder Herman responds so strongly to Rosemary. "She's my Rushmore," he tells Max. But Rosemary is haunted by her own ghosts. Her husband, a former Rushmore student, drowned the year before. She lives in a room filled with artifacts from his school days. Max reminds her of the boy she married, Herman of the man he never grew up to be.
To call Rushmore a romantic triangle about clinical depressives doesn't allow for the film's bracing humanism. No tidy happy ending here. Just a cotillion honoring Max's Vietnam play and allowing the major characters to come together, change partners and dance to a Faces song, "Ooh La La," that links youth and experience in a lovely, fleeting moment of reconciliation before the shooting recommences. Anderson closes the curtain on his movie as if he were directing a play by Max Fischer, which, of course, is just what he has done. Bravo.