Big Man(child) on Campus

Holden, not Harold: Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson's Rushmore

area theaters, starts Friday

In director Wes Anderson's 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket, one of the white male leads finds a translator to tell a Mexican motel maid that he loves her. Ah, I thought: That's what I need. The stilted bonding habits and compulsively delusional self-analysis of Anderson's hapless suburban burglary gang could have been the rituals of a lost, alien tribe for all I understood them. At one point, I turned to my friend and asked with exasperation, "Are guys really like this?" He shook his head. "No, but all these guys are like Nic Cage." So maybe I didn't get these guys because they were movie guys playing real-life guys playing movie guys. Anderson may have meant for his characters to be sympathetically pathetic, as if to say that our sorry modern white men are so desperate for identity that they swipe it from Hollywood adventure films. Instead, I felt I was watching some relentlessly chatty foreign film without subtitles.

With his second film, Rushmore, Anderson has discovered a translator: himself. He has become a filmmaker skilled enough to drag the viewer into the story, whether or not you appreciate his themes. The wit here, while peculiar, isn't insulated like Bottle Rocket's vacuum-packed in-jokery. The affected theatrical speech style comes and goes, and is the more distinct for its inconstancy. Self-conscious, artifice-acknowledging bits--e.g., the opening stage curtain that introduces the movie--actually relate to movie events. The tale of an adolescent in love first with his school, then with a woman, and finally, possibly, with life and how to live it, Rushmore engages like a smart-ass cross between Catcher in the Rye and Harold and Maude--except that Anderson's anti-hero Max Fischer always cares too much rather than too little. And he's hardly ineffective in his passion.

Max (Jason Schwartzman) is a longtime day-student, age 15, at a private academy called Rushmore. The quintessential nerdy scholarship kid, he is the son of a benign barber (Seymour Cassel), although he usually describes his father as an important neurosurgeon. Seeking to serve the school he adores, he has become president of the existing clubs and started a host of others; his own studies have suffered accordingly, as headmaster Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox) reminds him. Max distracts himself from his academic problems by befriending a depressed if affluent Rushmore alumnus, Mr. Blume (Bill Murray). Then, tracking down a scribbled note left in a library book (a Jacques Cousteau quote concerning the responsibility of great men to make themselves felt), Max discovers first-grade teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). His obsession with her will destroy his friendship with Mr. Blume and get him expelled.

As played (true to life, I imagine) by newcomer Schwartzman, Max is a singularly organized and uniquely creative caterpillar-browed dweeb. His candid boorishness is excused because of that pleasing, if not unselfish, generosity--at least until Miss Cross starts to find his attention unnerving, and Mr. Blume falls for Miss Cross (and she for him). When drama-club president Max sees his carefully written plot unraveling, and his direction ignored, he doesn't go off and hang himself. Oh, no. He just rewrites his play, adding war adventure to the noirish romance. He and Mr. Blume move into an increasingly violent exchange of pranks (Murray, here, accomplishes everything with his eyes, thank God). These set pieces are definitely amusing in a gothic sort of way. But soft-skinned Miss Cross gets it right when she tells Max, "You know, you and Mr. Blume deserve each other: You're both little children."

This maternal scolding works as Anderson's internal critique: Aren't men silly, this line asks, with their absurd obsessions and competitions? But Miss Cross doesn't go far enough. Max's mother died when he was a child; Miss Cross is a recent widow ("We both have dead people in our families," Max offers in a typically awkward flirtation gambit). Williams's gentle, beautiful schoolteacher appears just too young to be Max's mother and just too old to be Mr. Blume's daughter--she's the perfect object of the boy's and the man's desires, and of their Oedipal conflict. (A suitor of her own vintage is portrayed as a ridiculous fool.) Events unfold as Dr. Freud advised, and Max enters greater society, war-proven, with an age-appropriate lover (Sara Tanaka). The same cannot be said of Mr. Blume, whose renewed interest in life is yet again represented by the youth of his consort.

Anderson's thoughtless repetition of these saggy-at-the-knees male myths wouldn't be so annoying if he had better defined the round-faced and fuzzily focused Miss Cross. Women have absurd obsessions and competitions, too: We do have lives beyond our roles as mom or lover. Which reminds me of a scene in Bottle Rocket: "What do you think of Inez?" one guy asks his buddy. "As a person?" comes the response. "As a girl," corrects the first. Schwartzman, Anderson, and co-writer Owen Wilson have fashioned an indelibly odd and winningly average American character in Max Fischer. It's too bad, though, that Max and his creators end up cleaving closer to Holden Caulfield--and his idealizing (and trivializing) view of females--than to Harold, who was willing to embrace Maude, wrinkles and all. Rushmore's dramatic games spell out Anderson's fascination with passion and its nemesis, cynicism. I just wish everybody got to play.

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