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Bill Murray's Face Is A Welcome Addition To The Genius of 'Rushmore.'

By James DiGiovanna

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  I CANNOT STRESS this strongly enough: Go to the movies now. You're probably thinking, "Hollywood has a nearly infinite supply of above-average films that will in no way insult my intelligence, bore me silly and rely solely on crude bathroom humor and large-breasted plastic-surgery mutants to hold whatever scrap of attention they can blackmail from entertainment-hungry audiences. Thus, I can see a film any time of year and have an experience that is in no way demeaning and pointless."

Well, guess again: Just like the mighty winds of the Sonora, Hollywood must obey the dictates of Nature and blow hot and cold as the seasons demand.

Right now it's "prime time" in H-wood, and all the best stuff is flooding the theaters in anticipation of the Academy Awards; but as soon as that self-congratulatory self-love fest is over, it's what we in the business (and by the business I mean the industry) call "dog season." Yes, right now you can go see A Simple Plan, The Thin Red Line, Hurlyburly, Life is Beautiful, Waking Ned Devine and Rushmore, but in a few weeks the theaters will be flooded with films that Gilbert Gottfried and Joe Piscopo turned down, so, please, I implore you, go.

Latest on the list of films which not only don't suck, but are actually "good," is the aforementioned Rushmore. The story, which meanders delightfully over an arbitrary five-month period, tells the tale of Max Fischer, a scholarship student at a prestigious prep school. Max is a budding playwright, having adapted the Al Pacino film Serpico into a live theater production, and is hard at work on a Ramboesque/Madame Butterflyesque play set during the Vietnam war, replete with live explosives and war paint. He's also editor of the school newspaper and yearbook; president of the French club, German club, chess club, and astronomy club; captain of the fencing and debate teams; founder of the Double-Team Dodgeball Society; and director of the Max Fischer Players.

Outside of the strange character of Max Fischer, it's difficult to describe this film without making it sound like an amalgam of any number of other "teen" films...there's a love triangle, a series of cruel pranks, a bully, a younger kid who looks up to the hero, etc. But it's like the case of two people who answer to the same general description but look nothing alike: Both George Stephanopoulos and Johnny Depp are white men, roughly 5 feet 6 inches tall, appearing to be in their mid-30s, with short, dark hair, dark eyes, and medium build, but there's little chance you'd mistake one for the other even in a dark bedroom, err, alley.

Rushmore, similarly, is no Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Not that that was such a bad film, but one is hardly likely to use the word "genius" in describing it. Rushmore has been getting that kind of praise, and with good reason. The characters are extremely complex, and each has an internal cohesiveness that makes them believable without simply seeming "realistic." If you go to the movies looking for realism, turn around and look at the people behind you mindlessly dribbling into their popcorn. If you want to be entertained, look at the screen. If the film and script are successful, it's because they ignore realism at just those points where it fails to be interesting.

And Rushmore is incessantly interesting. Not only is the dialogue bizarre and engaging, each shot seems somehow just slightly off. The juxtaposition of a fish tank in front of two actors, a sudden zoom, a back and forth pan, all give the film a slightly unsettling feel that enhances the strange, and yet familiar, goings-on in each scene.

Nobody does strange-but-familiar as well as Bill Murray, whose pathetic creepy guy act has gotten better and better as the films he's starred in have gotten worse and worse. Luckily, in his role as Max Fischer's grown-up friend and rival in the love triangle, he has great material to work with, and Tinseltown wonks are talking Oscar nomination. Not a win, mind you; nobody wins for playing creepy (or else William H. Macy would have walked away with it for his performance in Fargo); but still, a nomination. So, in your face, Chevy Chase.

Newcomer Jason Schwartsman in the lead may be even better than Murray, and he's not pretty enough to pull a DiCaprio and turn in a series of incredibly lame performances after this sensational premiere, so we can expect either to see more great work from him, or for him to simply drop off the face of the earth. Either would be more dignified than DiCaprio's post-Gilbert Grape work.

Also appearing, as Max's father, is Seymour Cassels, who should have gotten an Oscar years ago and is now too weird looking for any but "dad" roles (I believe this is known as "the Elliott Gould effect"). Still, it's nice to see one of the national treasures of the performing arts getting a bit part in a film that won't be shown on USA Up All Night.

All this acting talent, combined with a truly original script and directorial style, make Rushmore the film to see in these waning weeks prior to the release of Something That Sony Pictures Scraped Off The Bottom of Its Corporate Shoe, Pauly Shore Embarrasses Us As A Nation, and This Has No Chance of Competing Against That New Star Wars Flick So Let's Slip It Into Theaters Mid-April When No One's Looking.

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