Head of its class

Movie: Rushmore

Our Rating: 4.50

"Rushmore" is riding a tall wave. Writer-director Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, part of the team behind 1995's magical "Bottle Rocket," are being called geniuses for the comic heights they ascend with their new film. Until the ballots were counted, actor Bill Murray was said to be Oscar-bound. And a Premiere critic called the film the best American comedy since "Annie Hall." Could any movie live up to all that hype?

Oh, ye of little faith. In this season of teenybopper nonsense like "She's All That" and the sentimental claptrap of "Stepmom," there's salvation in this riotous tale of class clowns, separated by generations, who find one another.

And yes, the underappreciated Murray has finally met a project that fully capitalizes on his droll comic talents. Murray was born to play Herman Blume, a steel tycoon bored with his millions, his aloof wife and his entirely rotten teen-age twin sons. The depth of his despair is reflected by his appearance. His hair seems chopped arbitrarily, a cigarette always dangles from his mouth, and he's assumed a permanent slouch.

An encounter with youth, though, energizes Blume. At the ritzy prep school Rushmore he meets Max Fischer, a go-getter who reminds the 40-something of his younger, maybe better, self. Max, a nerd with glasses and an off-putting arrogance, is the self-made most-famous kid on campus. He's president of the French Club, captain of the debating team, and obsessively involved in such activities as beekeeping, fencing, astronomy, backgammon and karate. He also writes and directs over-the-top plays: A "Serpico" complete with realistic gunplay, a war story with deafening explosions.

Fischer, the oddball but ultimately likable character smartly played by newcomer Jason Schwartzman, becomes fast friends with Blume. The two, though, eventually find themselves pitted against one another for the attentions of beautiful but sad first-grade teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). Love is hell, and so is war, which ensues with increasingly bothersome and dangerous pranks.

"Rushmore" might have been played entirely for laughs, laced with low-brow humor. Instead, Anderson and Wilson dig deep into Blume's depression, Max's bogus superiority and the extended grieving of the widowed Rosemary for a tone that infuses melancholy into the outrageous humor. It's a nearly perfect mix.

comment

Tags