Once again a film comes to us hyped beyond anything it can possibly sustain. "Rushmore" is a sometimes charming, occasionally funny, often thoughtful portrait of male adolescence as seen through a few months in the life of fifteen-year-old Max Fisher, a sometime student at exclusive Rushmore Academy. Cowritten and directed by Wes Anderson, who a couple of years ago made the offbeat comedy "Bottle Rocket," the film stars Francis Ford Coppola's 17-year-old nephew Jason Schwartzman as Max, Bill Murray as the middle-aged school benefactor Herman Blume, and Olivia Williams as the young teacher whom both fall in love with.
Those of us who didn't see the film at its early festival screenings, when because of its quirky structure and unresolved relationships it captured more hearts than minds, find ourselves wondering what all the fuss is about. Anderson's now-famous pilgrimage with a print of the film to show it to Pauline Kael at her retirement retreat in the Berkshires (she didn't care for it) has lent a most romantic aura to the movie, but now that the hype has evaporated the film simply doesn't hold up, showing that even in her declining years Kael still retains the rigorous standards of her earlier prime.
The story, such as it is, follows Max through a semester of his high school career, during which he flunks out of exclusive Rushmore, gets a not-to-be-denied crush on a pretty second-grade teacher (Williams), gets her fired (all right, she resigns first) because his childish and false boasts about sex with her get back to the administration, sets a hive of bees on his supposed rival Murray, writes and directs school plays that climax with a love story set during the heavy fighting in Vietnam, while helicopters fly over the gymnasium stage -- and I've left out a dozen others.
Max is half cranky child and half Anderson's deus ex machina, driving what passes for a plot beyond all rationality. That's not necessarily bad, of course, but in this case it is a serious weakness. Whenever we're tempted to respond to Max as a human being, Anderson undercuts him with another bizarre little jab at our expectations. And whenever we look at him just as the plot's fulcrum we get a bit of warmer, fuzzier character.
Seventeen-year-old Schwartzman does a good job of carrying the film; he's secure as an actor (he's Talia Shire's son) and he doesn't fight the bizarrerie of his character on screen. Murray, as a local tycoon whose money helps support the school, must find some coherence in an ineptly written role that seems to contradict itself every ten minutes. He is either smart or stupid, thoughtful or callous, as though Anderson -- like Max himself -- can't quite understand a grownup when he writes the character.
Much of the film rings true as a study of a fifteen-year-old boy: sudden passions, fear of (the opposite) sex, braggadocio to cover insecurity, and the like. It's worth seeing for that alone, but in the cold light of national commercial release we can see that there's less to it than meets the eye.