Clever ‘Rushmore,’ hotwired ‘Go’ are teen movies actually worth seeing

There have been a lot of movies over the last few years about high school kid, but nothing quite like Rushmore. While most high school movies try to build appeal with a hip soundtrack and lots of ironic attitude, Rushmore is interested in actually presenting unique characters who aren’t meant just to be cheered on, but inspected and understood. In other words, it’s a lot more mature than other such movies, while still displaying a silly, irreverent sense of humor. Rushmore is some kind of minor masterpiece.

Rushmore is the story of Max Fischer, a precocious 15-year old at Rushmore Academy. Max doesn’t get good grades because he spends all his time organizing plays and clubs. He thinks he’s already a bigshot CEO: he’s also a pain in the ass, played with the right mixture of arrogance and uncertainty by Jason Schwartzman in his film debut. Schwartzman comes from movie royalty: Talia Shire’s son, Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, Nicolas Cage’s cousin. The great thing about his character is that while we see in Max all the successful jerks we knew in school, the ones who were destined to get elected to Congress or who would shmooze with the teachers, he’s also tremendously sympathetic: not really sure of himself, not really as popular as he might seem. He’s kind of like Ferris Bueller on a bad day, or a less pissed-off Holden Caulfield.

The central relationship in the film is between Max and Herman Blume, a wealthy gradute and benefactor of Rushmore, played by Bill Murray. The two have a lot in common; while Max is a boy who pretends to be a man, Herman Blume is a successful man who acts like a child. The role is prefect for Bill Murray, who uses his familiar sarcastic wise-ass persona but also emphasizes the sadness underneath the cynicism, the world-weariness at the heart of a man who’s seen it all. It sounds sappy, but during the course of the movie, Max and Blume teach each other about life! And love! And everything that you’ve heard about Bill Murray deserving the Oscar nomination that he didn’t get is true.

The movie’s plot centers on Max’s infatuation with a teacher at Rushmore, Miss Cross, played by Olivia Williams. After going to great lengths to attract her, Max is expelled and finds himself at war with Blume, who has also fallen in love with Miss Cross. Of course, this is vastly simplified. The movie is really quite rich, able to include serious dramatic scenes and such comedic gems as Max’s production of a play based on the movie Serpico.

What’s nice about Rushmore’s jokes is that they’re all nicely integrated within the movie’s greater emotional framework. Rushmore’s writers, Owen Wilson (one of the space cowboys in Armageddon) and Wes Anderson (who also directed), have constructed their movie with a great deal of simplicity, but also a good number of clever flourishes that would be ruined if I were to mention them here. Suffice to say that Rushmore is a real gem of a movie, well-made with engaging performances. See it while you can.

On a different end of the teen-movie spectrum is Go, the new movie from Doug Liman, director of Swingers. Go differs from Rushmore in being a flashy multi-character comedy with lots of action and sex, but there are a lot of similarities. Just as Rushmore invites us to step back and observe Max as a person, so does Go mildly suggest that teenagers and twentysomethings are mostly a bunch of self-absorbed morons, but it does so while offering plenty of cool, hip eye candy. It’s a lot tighter and more exciting than Swingers, thanks to a clever script by John August and director Liman’s ability to keep things constantly fresh, visually.

Go is structured like a sort of junior Pulp Fiction, starting with three young employees of a grocery store and branching out to tell three overlapping stories in Los Angeles and Las Vegas over 24 hours at Christmas. The cast is made up of a large number of almost-stars you’ve probably seen in other movies or on TV, including Scott Wolf (Party of Five), Jay Mohr (Saturday Night Live), Taye Diggs (How Stella Got Her Groove Back), and Timothy Olyphant (Scream 2). Katie Holmes from Dawson’s Creek is the most prominent actor in the ads for the movie, but her part isn’t that big. All the actors do reasonably well, with three standouts: Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) is amazingly jaded as the girl who digs up a pair of schemes to avoid eviction, while William Fichtner (the blind guy in Contact) and J. E. Freeman (the bad guy in Alien Resurrection) both go slightly over the top as the movie’s authority figures.

Go is a lot of fun in its various scenes of action and black comedy, but like Swingers it suffers from a sort of general pointlessness. While Swingers was a very hip movie, it was also awfully static: I can remember lots of images and catch-phrases but very little actual plot. Go has plot to burn, but it still doesn’t really build up beyond a mood of black comic hipness, and a vague statement that the youth of America (plus a British guy) are doomed to fall prey to their own attempted cleverness.

All of this doesn’t really detract from the movie while you’re in the theater. Go is a funny and sharp amorality tale, and no movie that features a car chase to the tunes of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” can be less than cool. I will spare you any unnecessary puns about proceeding to see it, references to Monopoly, etc.