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RUSHMORE (CRITERION)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams, Bill Murray
Director:  Wes Anderson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  January 18, 2000

Film ****

I've never seen a character quite like Max Fischer (Schwartzman), although he did remind me vaguely of one or two people I used to know in school.  He is, perhaps, the ultimate high school over-achiever.  He is president and/or founder of nearly every club at Rushmore Academy, academic, sporting, or otherwise.  His time is spent on his never ending torrential flows of extra-curricular activities, including being the resident playwright on campus.  He is brilliant, hardworking, resourceful, and dedicated.  He would be the ideal student, if he weren't failing his subjects so miserably.

His entire world is being a student at that prestigious institution.  He enjoys being the man who gets things done on campus.  He keeps to himself the fact that he's not rich like the other students, but instead attends on a scholarship he won writing a play in second grade (“a little one-act about Watergate”).  With his list of accomplishments, he doesn't quite get why he's in danger of being expelled simply because his grades are so poor.

But Max's energies and talents soon find a new outlet when he develops a crush on pretty new teacher, Miss Cross (Williams).  Love is new for Max, and it's clear he doesn't know how to go about it.  After he learns of her appreciation for Latin, for example, he embarks on a crusade to have Latin reinstated into the school's curriculum, and never mind the fact that it had been by his own earlier efforts that it had been dropped in the first place.

He decides the school needs a gigantic aquarium to please her, so he goes about arranging this new project with the help of his new friend, steel tycoon Mr. Blume (Murray).  Blume is a fascinating character in his own right.  He has twin sons who attend school with Max, and they are spoiled and hateful, a constant source of irritation to him.  Though older and more successful, he has the same kind of almost adolescent-like insecurities that plague Max.  And when he too falls for Miss Cross (despite being married himself)…well, Max has not yet begun to fight.

The war that escalates over the teacher is both funny and a little touching.  It may remind you of some of the terrible things one does when one is young and under the influence of raging hormones.  And poor Miss Cross is caught in the middle of a lovestruck teenager and a married, somewhat immature older man.  Neither is right for her, but they may die trying to prove that they are.

This is an extraordinary comedy, and quite a rare one, these days, to have its humor completely derived from the characterizations.  In recent years when the funny but irreverent comedies like Austin Powers, There's Something About Mary, BASEketball and others have been the norm, this film stands out for being hilarious in a smart way, and for having faith that these characters, and the depths the actors bring to them, can bring the script's humor to life without any references to flatulence, bodily excrements, or other below the belt visuals and jokes.

By the way, my favorite moments were probably seeing Max's plays as enacted on stage.  Talk about your production values!

Video ***1/2

After some extensive comparisons with the previous release of this movie issued by Touchstone, I have to say that I noticed pretty much no difference between the transfers.  Both are quite good, with mostly sharp images and just an occasional bit of softness here and there, but with good and natural color renderings throughout and no evidence of grain or compression.  However, I'm giving the Criterion version an extra ˝ star because they opted for widescreen enhancement. 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is mostly dialogue oriented, and sounds fine, but comes to life during some key moments, including the excellent classic rock songs on the soundtrack, and a few of Max's more daring plays. 

Features ****

This is where the Criterion version really excels.  For starters, there are some nicely designed animated menus to guide you through the disc's many offerings.  Then once inside, you'll find a trailer, a stills gallery, a full length commentary with Anderson, star Schwartzman, and co-writer Owen Wilson, a behind the scenes documentary, the Charlie Rose Show featuring Anderson and Murray, storyboards and storyboard to film comparisons, and the most fun feature, the inclusion of the Max Fischer Players' productions of The Truman Show, Out of Sight, and Armageddon made for the MTV Movie Awards.  Plus, the disc comes with a special poster, which is a map of Rushmore Academy and shows the sites of the film's key events.  Criterion has done it again!

Summary:

Rushmore is a triumph.  It's original, well acted, written, and directed, and is the kind of comedy that appeals to your mind rather than your basest instincts.  There are many laughs, to be sure, but none that get in the way of the fact that there's a terrific story to be told as well.  And even if you've already purchased the Touchstone DVD, trust me, it's well worth it to give it away and pick up this wonderfully produced and loaded to the gills anamorphic version from Criterion.