Absolute classics: Rushmore (1998)

4th March 2005 at 00:00

Fooling teachers ****

Arcane rituals ***

Staging the unstageable in am-dram *****

With The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou now on general release, director Wes Anderson continues to baffle and delight the critics. This new movie boasts production design in microscopic detail: anyone for sugar crabs? (Fictional, stop-motion animated crustaceans: don't ask.) We see Bill Murray's acclaimed performance as Zissou, a hang-dog, haunted-looking Jacques Cousteau figure.

What's behind these cinematic oddities? Where does Anderson get his ideas? A good starting point is Rushmore, Anderson's sophomore feature. It's a cracking example of school on film, yet capable of holding up almost any institution to ridicule.

Imagine a student who is academically awful but keeps a place at an elite prep school through extra-curricular activities alone. The yearbook shows Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) running fencing and beekeeping clubs while staging Serpico the Musical with a high school cast (and production design in microscopic detail).

Off-screen, the more we know about the Texan director, the more that Max seems autobiographical. Yet unlike the risk-taking Anderson, the precocious Fischer will go to any length in order to be liked, declaring: "I think you've just got to find something you love and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it's going to Rushmore."

A burgeoning friendship between Max and millionaire Vietnam veteran deadbeat dad Herman Blume (Murray) helps him to focus this passion, but their romantic rivalry over Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) blows it all apart. Stalking the new teacher and initiating unauthorised building work on school grounds lead to his expulsion from the academy. Headmaster Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox) has had enough and Max is suspended.

On academic probation, Max pitches up at a nearby inner-city school, where he's shocked to find that there's no fencing society and that the scope for extra-curricular activities is much reduced. Initially, his specs and blazer combo makes him a target amid the bigger, sportswear-clad kids, and the extra-curricular strategy invites more derision than acceptance. It takes an extravagantly staged musical adaptation of Blume's Vietnam tour of duty to mend fences, putting Max back on top of his game.

Rushmore combines comedy and deadly seriousness, makes a virtue out of selfishness, and flags up alternative, non-antisocial ways to be the pupil from hell. Max and Blume are a grim reflection of each other, yet they hilariously hold up a mirror to the society which relies on such volunteers to keep its education system ticking over.

Graham Barnfield


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