Nerds are funny. See the ugly nerd humiliated by the pretty girl. See the puny nerd's head dunked down the john by the jock. See the horny nerd fall off the ladder while looking into the girls' dorm block at shower time.
Only in Rushmore, supernerd Max Fischer (Schwartzman) takes centre stage in a story that's funny, dark, often surreal and free from the usual teen movie distractions like bikini volleyball, gate-crashing the popular kids' keg party or falling in love with the goofy girl who throws off her specs to reveal that she's a beauty.
Instead, the beauty is teacher Miss Cross (Williams), a young widow who pines for her dead husband and is unattainable to Max in so many ways that he simply chooses to ignore them all. She's first intrigued, then flattered, then baffled by Max's advances.
Max inspires all these feelings because as well as not being your average nerd, he's also not your average schoolkid. What separates him from the run-of-the-mill, frustrated, hormone-addled teenager is that while they're happy to work off their frustrations with the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated and some toilet tissues, Max pours his energy into hobbies. He fences, he plays chess, he wears a silly red beret and, most importantly, he mounts lavish and over-ambitious school plays complete with sound effects, scale model backgrounds and OTT pyrotechnics.
Tolerated by the other pupils (even the head bully, played with Celtic menace by the hulking Stephen McCole), Max finds friends that are as eclectic as his dress sense or choice of true love. He's drawn towards Herman Blume (Murray), a wealthy industrialist rarely seen without a hip flask and who's horrified that his life has become dreary and his teenage sons have become brain-dead monsters. Trading deadpan exchanges about life, love and Vietnam, an unlikely friendship grows between the childish adult and the world-weary teen.
The joy of Rushmore is that although it rarely goes the way you think it will, it always stays believable. Herman may regard Max as a friend, but at the same time he's unwilling to bow to some upstart kid. And, while Max appears poised and at ease with the adult world, he's still just a kid, prone to the temper tantrums and general twattish behaviour all 15 year olds display. It's in generational inconsistencies - - such as when Herman matches Max's adolescent fury or Max outdoes his peers - - that Rushmore excels.
Filmed on autumnal locations and backed by an oddball soundtrack that's as eclectic as the story itself, Rushmore is a genuinely one-off comedy that demands (and receives) excellent performances from Murray and hilarious newcomer Schwartzman (nephew of Francis Ford Coppola). The next time someone complains they don't make intelligent comedies any more, throw a video of this at their head.
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Rushmore is accurate enough on the teen-angst front to make you wince, yet whimsical enough to make you want Max to win. If The Graduate had been made about a high school rather than a university student, it would've been a lot like this.