`Rushmore' Is A Monumental Comedy

Movie review XXXX "Rushmore," with Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Mason Gamble, Brian Cox. Directed by Wes Anderson, from a script by Anderson and Owen Wilson. 95 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - Restricted because of language and brief nudity.

Perhaps the best way to see an American comedy this fresh and original is to have it sprung on you. Especially in a film-festival setting dominated by artsier fare.

That's what happened last September at the Telluride Film Festival, where "Rushmore" appeared before an unsuspecting crowd that had been told only that (a) Bill Murray was in it, (b) Talia Shire's son was the star, (c) the New York Film Festival had accepted it and (d) the director, Wes Anderson, had previously made only one movie, the mostly forgotten "Bottle Rocket."

For me, the experience was much like seeing Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" and George Lucas' "American Graffiti" before the hype machines kicked in. Knowing absolutely nothing about where "Rushmore" was headed, or what kind of creature it would turn out to be, I was consistently delighted by Anderson's apparent inability to do the expected.

There's an unshakable confidence about this coming-of-age fable that matches that of its central character, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a 15-year-old underachiever who always behaves as if he knows exactly what he's doing. Max's nerdy determination wins the loyalty of some peers, the enmity of many, as well as the admiration of a wealthy surrogate father, Herman Blume (Murray).

"What's the secret, Max?," asks Herman. "You seem to have figured it out." Bored with his own boorish sons and wandering wife, Herman wants to know if Max has anything planned for the day.

Eventually they both find themselves falling for a recently widowed grade-school teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), who enjoys the attention Max pays to her, but finds the married Herman a more reasonable age and temperament. This leads to bitter rivalry and dirty tricks. For a while, anyway.

Alliances shift quickly here, as they do in adolescence; even the adults get trapped in the rapid change of seasons and emotions. Curtains literally part as each new month begins, as Max gets expelled from Rushmore Academy, takes up smoking when he gets rejected by the cigarette-addicted Rosemary, then plans his revenge on Herman. Before you know it, it's Christmas, and the landscape has changed once more.

"Rushmore" is a sophomore effort, and usually that spells trouble. But like Nichols' and Lucas' sophomore films, Anderson's second movie seems like the first true expression of its creator. "Bottle Rocket" certainly had its admirers, and stretches of it had this kind of freshness, but it didn't carry through.

Partly it's the assured visual style of "Rushmore" that makes it work, partly it's the precise pacing and the momentum-gathering three-act structure of the script. But perhaps the most important single reason for "Rushmore's" consistency is the casting. Murray, Williams, Seymour Cassel (as Max's real father), Mason Gamble (as Max's conscience, Dirk Calloway) and Sara Tanaka (as an infatuated student who doggedly pursues Max) couldn't be better.

Making his film debut, Schwartzman (who really is the son of Shire and the late Jack Schwartzman) is a perfect fit for Max. Just 17 when he made the film, he slips into the role as easily as Dustin Hoffman slipped into "The Graduate." His line readings, pitched between the arrogant and the deadpan, never fail to suggest Max's obsessive nature, which is the key to both the film's humor and its awareness that Max really is, in his way, the center of the universe.

Max may be no genius; his ambitions as a playwright suggest that he's got a long way to go. There's no question that he suffers for his rudeness and lack of humility. But without him, a number of people would be emotionally poorer. He really has created a wonderful life for himself - and for them.