Photo by Van Redin

In Rushmore, the beautifully off-center new movie from the young director Wes Anderson, there’s a scene in which an industrialist named Blume realizes he’s an unwelcome guest in his own home. Played with broken-down grace by Bill Murray, he takes a look around, then walks toward his pool, a drink in hand and cigarette draped from his lips. For a few moments, the camera lingers behind as the millionaire walks away, his Budweiser swim trunks sagging; it’s a ridiculous image, but there’s something in Murray’s slouch that gives the kitschy costume an unexpected pathos. Blume climbs the ladder to the high dive, pauses at the end of the board and cannonballs into the glassy water. Unlike Cheever’s suburban swimmer, though, Blume isn’t trying to get home. The truth is, he’s already there: It's 30 years later and The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock has just discovered he never did manage to get out of the deep end.

Rushmore is the story of a boy named Max, not his middle-aged friend Blume, and Murray isn’t the film’s star. But in an important way he’s one of its guiding principles. The actor wears defeat like a sack suit. It’s a bad fit, but that’s his shtick and his appeal — defeat is Murray’s armature, his rationale, his disguise. It’s also his revenge. The world can’t beat him because he’s already down for the count; he can’t lose because he never tries to win. Blume doesn’t have Murray’s ironic self-possession, he only knows his life has gone seriously out of joint, that a gap has erupted between how the world sees him and how he sees himself in the world. The first time we meet Blume he’s giving a speech from a chapel pulpit at Rushmore Academy, an elite boys school in which his monstrous twin sons are enrolled. “Take dead aim on the rich boys,” he says to his young, gaping audience. “Get them in the crosshairs and take them down.” Blume is a tycoon with the soul of a loser, but unlike the actor playing him, he hasn’t yet learned that being a loser can be its own kind of triumph.

The kid who teaches Blume this unlikely lesson is Max Fischer, the 15-year-old Rushmore student who first becomes the millionaire’s confidant, then his vengeful enemy. One of those kids who seems to have skipped child hood altogether, Max is a scholarship student with a devotion to his school that is absolute: He monitors his fellow students by walkie-talkie and heads up what seems to be every team, society and extra curricular activity on campus — the Debate Team, French Club, Fencing Team, Stamp & Coin Club, Astronomy Society, even the Beekeepers. More impor tantly, he’s the visionary behind the Max Fischer Players, a drama club of unusually towering reach for which he does all the writing and directing and some of the acting. What Max isn’t is a good student, and shortly after the film opens he’s put on academic probation. What follows — how Max survives and doesn’t, how he falls in with a middle-aged man and in love with a beautiful young woman — makes up the story of Rushmore, but doesn’t explain its wayward humor, the elegance of its structure or Anderson’s lyrical sense of longing.

Most directors who work with Murray can’t keep a lid on him; many don’t bother to try (much of the time, you get the sense that the actor isn’t trying much, either). Anderson keeps Murray reined in, and in return the actor delivers a wistful performance with no loud notes. In a funny way, Murray succeeds in making his part seem larger by playing everything quieter than usual; he even has the sense to let himself play second banana to an unknown young actor named Jason Schwartzman, who makes a stunning feature debut as Blume’s once-and-future friend. With his fantastically wild and mossy eyebrows, heavy-framed glasses and serious nose, Max Fischer — the last name is a pointed reference to the once-precocious chess genius — looks like he’s wearing one of those gag glasses-and-nose appliances. It’s an extraordinary face. Anderson, whose first feature was a sweetly skewed caper movie, Bottle Rocket, coaxes lovely performances from all his actors (including Seymour Cassel as Max’s dad, Brian Cox as his headmaster and Mason Gamble as his best friend), but what he manages with Schwartzman is magical: He makes him a star.

As with everything else in this movie, the greatness of the performance sneaks up on you. Not long after Max is put on probation, he cooks up a scheme to build an aquarium and stages an adaptation of Serpico. Things haven’t been going right for Max — he got a 37 on a geometry test and the woman he loves is an elementary school teacher nearly twice his age named Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) — but the aquarium makes some sort of crazy sense, and his stage drama, with its downy, pubescent boys dressed like nuns and undercover cops, brings down the house. That night after the play, Max, Blume, Miss Cross and her friend, a young doctor (Luke Wilson, co-writer Owen’s brother) to whom Max takes an instant dislike, go out for dinner at one of those sepulchral restaurants where the monied murmur into linen napkins. Blume pours the prodigy a drink, and all of a sudden Max doesn’t sound like a 60-year-old man with a lifetime already behind him. Suddenly, as he wails out his pain (“You hurt my feelings!”), he sounds like the kid he is.

It’s only fitting. Rushmore is a boy’s own story, and given that it was shot at his alma mater, it’s a good bet that it’s Anderson’s own story. But it’s a tough, unsentimental, wonderfully original variation on a familiar refrain. The school setting conjures up easy comparisons with Jean Vigo’s classic tale of childhood anarchy, Zero for Conduct, as well as Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . ., but there’s an essential divide between those movies and this one: Max isn’t rebelling against Rushmore, he’s embracing it full on. Max doesn’t think himself superior to the school or its students; he doesn’t want to tear it down. He wants to own it, have it, be it. He loves the school, and in some ways, the school loves him back — but only to a point. Max is in Rushmore but will never be of Rushmore, much the same way that Blume, no matter how much money he makes, will never rightly belong to the power elite.

Max is an outsider, and like Blume and Miss Cross, the rosy-cheeked beauty who improbably comes between them, he’s also a survivor. There’s a piercing sadness to Max, who lost his mother terribly young and has been busy trying to fill that hole ever since. Anderson and Wilson don’t make the dead mom into a fetish; there’s nothing mawkish or symbolic about her death, just something sad and matter-of-fact. When Max flips open his typewriter case toward the end of the film, after a hilariously tortuous interlude in which friendships are tested, renounced and reclaimed, Anderson holds the camera on the case’s inscription (“Bravo Max! Love Mom”) only as long as it takes for the teenager to unlock it. The point of the scene isn’t the mother’s absence, or the texture and density of Max’s scar tissue, but the fact that he’s got some important writing to do. What counts finally about Max is that he’s got as much of the survivor’s grit as his sorrow.

In The Graduate, Benjamin thinks he’s better than his parents and their square friends, but he’s exactly the same, even if neither he nor the filmmakers have the guts to admit it. In Rushmore, Max thinks he’s like everyone else, but he’s radically, irredeemably different, and his idiosyncrasy is at once his burden, his gift and his salvation. It lands him in trouble (for a while, the boarding-school romp turns into a darkly funny take on a J.D. movie), but it also turns police stories into adolescent epics, builds aquariums and gives a 15-year-old nerd the sublime self-confidence to remind an opponent, mid-clinch, that once upon a time he wrote “a little one-act about Watergate.” If Max doesn’t wear defeat like Blume, it’s not because he’s got a smaller ego, or less cash in the bank, or that Schwartz man is any less of a show stopper than Murray, but because he’s learned at an early age to turn life’s disappointments and failures into art. Max is writing himself a better script. In this one, all the losers are beautiful.

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