Rushmore is quite simply the greatest American comedy of the Nineties -- simultaneously a brilliant dissection of the nerd personality, the most notable use of the widescreen frame in recent years, and a yearning parable of the need for community. And it does all this with quirky humor that improves on the Coens' because unlike those two, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have an appreciation for the humanity of their characters.
Jason Schwartzman (yet another member of the Coppola clan) stars as Max Fischer, and he makes one of the most distinguished film debuts in years; playing Max with deadpan charm (his is the most hilariously stone-face mug since Buster Keaton), he understands what makes Max tick. The most brilliant stroke in Schwartzman's performance and in the script is that it dares to make Fischer less than an ideal human being at the start. Max clearly has his good qualities - he's obviously bright and creative, and has superhuman abilities of persuasion. He's also a social misfit, and like many male teenagers of that type (and his personality is a distinctively masculine type) has developed a truly immense arrogance to compensate. He's a quixotic, trying to make a community out of the Rushmore Academy that bends to his will, and not quite succeeding because of his own emotional isolation. Max, is in short, a bit of a self-absorbed jerk; and what Rushmore essays is the progression of this adolescent personality into a more mature being.
The two key events that begins Max's journey of the soul are his friendship with Herman Bloom (Bill Murray, in a justly-accoladed performance), odd since Bloom is a nightmare vision of a future Max -- on the surface, a successful businessman; deep inside, a self-loathing husk of a man. They descend into a great clash of male ego as they both fall hard for Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), and the fallout leads to a slow awakening which leads to Max's acceptance of the fact that he cannot bend the world to his will. (Another thing about Rushmore that's admirable is that it takes time for Max to reach this.) Bloom, in the meanwhile, has hit rock bottom and Max redeems both himself and Bloom by helping Herman win Miss Cross back -- and in the process, establishes the sense of community he has longed for while still being his unique, eccentric self. The film closes with one of the most moving shots of the year; all our principal players dancing in a moment of oneness. (This film *speaks* to me, goddammit, like no other film has in recent years.)
The compositional scheme itself is one of the most dazzling uses of the widescreen in ages -- Anderson first begins with a montage of tableaux depicting Max's extricurricular activities; simultaneously hilarious (I want to be in a Bombardment Society) and hinting at the sad isolation of Max's existence. As the film continues, we often see Max (and others) in tight isolating close-ups with the frame set dead center on the face and vast acres of empty space on both sides. As Max slowly matures, the frequency of the head shots decreases -- the composition is a little less extreme, perhaps he's off center a bit, that kind of thing.
Anderson also emphasizes the universality of his film by putting the setting in an American Never-Never-Land : we never know what city this is taking place in, and Anderson manages to create a sense that the setting is simultaneously urban, suburban, and rural. (Several of the locations look urban, but they're shot with a distinctly rural sense of forlorn.) Similarly, his use of British Invasion tunes of the soundtrack (some wonderful original bits by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, as well) and other tricks creates a similar sense of unstuckness in time.
Rushmore is not without its flaws -- the pacing could be a bit tighter, and Anderson & Wilson don't understand their female characters with quite the acuity they do their male characters; but for anyone interested in film as an art form, Rushmore is a must-see.