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'Rushmore' one of most original films of 1990s

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"Rushmore"

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams

Rated: R

When "Rushmore" went into limited release in December of 1998 in order to qualify for this year's Oscars critics far and wide thought Bill Murray had a good shot at the Best Supporting Actor Award. When the nominations were announced last month, surprise!, Murray wasn't even among the nominees.

The supporting actor category sports a strong field this year and there are always oversights, but this is Murray's most sublime role to date. He can feel at home with Lisa Kudrow, who was also overlooked for her supporting turn in "The Opposite of Sex." If it's any consolation, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, The New York Film Critics Circle and The National Society of Film Critics all picked Murray as best supporting actor.

The team of director/screenwriter Wes Anderson and screenwriter Owen Wilson had a minor hit back in 1996 with the off-beat comedy "Bottle Rocket," and they continue their formula here. But "Rushmore" is more than off-beat and can only adequately be described as downright eccentric.

No, it's not in Fellini territory, nor is it a bizarre freakout like "Eraserhead" or last year's "Pi," but the characters, screenplay and overall style combine to set a tone unlike any movie in recent memory. The audience I was part of was all over the map in age and culture, and while much of the humor got to us all, there was a lot of disparate laughter, as well.

For Bill Murray fans, though, it usually takes nothing more than him walking on screen to elicit a chuckle. Maybe it's the twinkle in his eye or his endearingly smart-aleck demeanor, but something always connects.

His character here is somewhat different than the persona he developed in "Meatballs," "Stripes" and "Caddyshack" and is actually closer to his portrayal of Larry Darrell in the 1984 version of Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge." A lot of critics were unkind to that film, but I've always had a place in my heart for it, and it was Murray's first attempt to mature as an actor.

Since the hoopla has all been over Murray as supporting actor, you may have surmised by now that his is not the lead role in "Rushmore." That distinction belongs to newcomer Jason Schwartzman as Rushmore student Max Fischer.

Max is the poorest kid at this somewhat elite academy, there on a scholarship. While outstanding in extracurricular activities from the school paper to the Rushmore Beekeeping Society he's somewhat lacking in the academic department; so much so that he's facing expulsion. He can deal with that later; right now he has a new play for the Max Fischer Players to stage and a new make that first love in his life.

That new love is somewhat of a problem as she's Ms. Cross, the new first-grade teacher at Rushmore. While she thinks Max is a nice kid, he's still ... a kid. To win her affection, Max enlists the help of a Rushmore alumnus, steel tycoon Mr. Blume (Bill Murray).

Blume, though financially successful, hates his life, hates his marriage and is father to two of Rushmore's (or anywhere's) more annoying meatheads. He finds a soulmate in Max, who reminds him of himself when he attended Rushmore.

Max wants Blume to help him win the affection of Ms. Cross, but after getting thrown into the mix, Blume finds himself falling for the teacher, as well. This begins a middle act that is an all-out battle between Max and Blume. Hilarious moments abound.

Max is eventually expelled from Rushmore and begins attending public school. He immediately begins his extracurricular obsessions and forms a new acting troupe. All the while he forges ahead unabashedly in his hopeless pursuit of Ms. Cross.

Schwartzman (son of actress Talia Shire, nephew of Frances Coppola) seems as unselfconscious as an actor as Max is as a character. Even as we know Max's plight is hopeless he needs to straighten up, he needs to wake up the teenager inside us is rooting for him all the way.

There is some ominous foreshadowing here that tends to make one uneasy about the eventual outcome, especially when Max buys a case of dynamite to use in his upcoming play about the Vietnam war, but keep in mind this is a comedy.

The soundtrack, original music by Devo founder Mark Mothersbaugh, as well as an eclectic selection of rock oddities, is as eccentric as the rest of the film and weaves nicely in and out of the action.

I guess Murray will have to wait on his Oscar. But he and everyone connected with the film can be satisfied in knowing they've made one of the most original movies of the 1990s.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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