Director Wes Anderson's modest, endearing debut, 1996's Bottle Rocket, is something of an anomaly in American independent film, a funny and original entry in the seemingly exhausted tradition of quirky, low-budget road comedies. Anderson and his co-writer/star, Owen C. Wilson, share an unabashed affection for underdogs and oddball visionaries; Dignan, Wilson's lovable and heroic would-be criminal mastermind from Bottle Rocket, is a character worthy of Preston Sturges or Bill Forsyth. So too is Jason Schwartzman's Max, an oval-faced marvel of misdirected adolescent energy in the fast, exhilarating new comedy Rushmore. Founder and president of just about every extracurricular activity at the exclusive Rushmore Academy—including fencing, dodgeball, beekeeping, and a theater troupe that stages a faithful production of Serpico—Schwartzman is also failing all his classes. His priorities are quickly rearranged when he vies for the affections of a first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams) with a wealthy, clinically depressed man-child (Bill Murray). Since Anderson and Wilson have great respect for hare-brained schemes and wild romantic gestures, Schwartzman is encouraged to mature only insofar as he outgrows his extreme self-obsession, no small feat. Rushmore is a coming-of-age story made by filmmakers who don't have much use for grown-ups, which is to say that Bill Murray finally gets a chance to deliver a career-defining performance. Murray has always been funny, often in vehicles unworthy of deadpan genius; imagine how unwatchable What About Bob? or The Man Who Knew Too Little would be without him. The hint of genuine pathos he brings to Rushmore tempers Schwartzman's brash, sometimes off-putting antics, gracing an already great comedy with surprising depth and heart.
More from The A.V. Club