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Although the events in Wes Anderson’s much-talked-about second feature, Rushmore, aren’t particularly new, he, along with co-writer Owen Wilson, has managed to create a character the likes of which filmdom has seldom seen—Max Fischer, a precocious, calculating, naive 15-year-old, ferociously ambitious in his personal style but blessed with neither the brains for book learning nor a mitigating sense of humor. To tell Max’s story, Anderson has invented something tricky and subtle—a friendly, down-to-earth tone that frames the characters’ absurd actions, panicked cruelties, and opulent desires with refreshingly human-sized breeziness. Rushmore doesn’t look too different from many smart novice efforts, but it feels like nothing else.

Max (Jason Schwartzman) is a 10th-grader at Rushmore Academy, a mediocre private school that becomes his raison d’être. After hearing a school benefactor describe the place as “one of the best schools in the country” during a chapel speech, Max steps outside and sniffs the air with renewed appreciation in his eyes. The son of a barber (Seymour Cassel) in a small, oppressive Northeastern city—they live in a clapboard house next to the cemetery where Max’s mother is buried—Max appreciates Rushmore for the opportunities it gives him to be king of myriad tiny worlds. One of the worst students in the school’s history, Max daydreams about solving centuries-old math conundrums, and in his waking hours, he organizes clubs, teams, and projects with tireless if misplaced energy. Wearing the same expression of cowlike intensity and teenage self-importance, Max heads up the French club, the mock United Nations, the debate team, the yearbook committee, the Rushmore beekeepers, the fencing team, and countless other time-whittling activities.

Up until now, Max’s interest in projects—notably playwriting, which earned him the initial Rushmore scholarship (“a little one-act about Watergate,” he recalls humbly)—has allowed him to highlight his façade of maturity by acting as leader; he also pals around with an angelic lackey (Mason Gamble) some grades younger. Actual adult participation has eluded him; even the code of grown-up behavior is to him a mere toy—Max tells the school’s headmaster he may decide to take a “post-graduate year” rather than capitulate to expulsion. But his attitude changes when he meets Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a beautiful, fragile-looking first-grade teacher with an English accent and a sad past. Determined to win her, Max sets out on a mad course, wooing her with lines like “We both have dead people in our families” (she is a recent widow) and plotting to build a giant aquarium as a tribute to her on school grounds.

To do so, he enlists the help of Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a miserable multimillionaire industrialist with two brutal, moronic sons and a straying wife. Blume, consumed with self-hatred, sees his isotope in the unaccountably self-confident Max, and their respective boyishness creates a middle ground for their friendship despite the age difference. In fact, in this eccentric universe, age means nothing. The adults accommodate Max’s presumptuousness and neediness—they all function on the same level. Even when Rosemary gently states, “I’m far too old for you,” Max merely smirks: “I’m surprised you brought it up so bluntly,” he says.

But things go awry: Max is finally expelled to a local public school, and lonely, awkward Blume falls for Rosemary, fomenting a war of increasingly childish malice between the boys. This war, too, is a match of equals—it’s like a prankish parody of the cop-vs.-gangster movie wherein the same set of talents works for two different sides. Murray’s face erupts in admiration when he realizes that Max is pumping a swarm of bees into his hotel room; he retaliates by running his Bentley over Max’s bike. Finally, Max is sent to jail, and he must redeem himself for betraying a friend as well as his family, and interfering in a romance in which he has no place. It’s no giveaway to say that everything turns out fine—Anderson’s clean, light touch and respect for all manner of personal idiosyncrasy ensure a happy ending.

So does the music, an unfashionably sentimental mix of shimmery harpsichord and melodic ’70s nonhits by the likes of John Lennon, Cat Stevens, and Donovan. Anderson’s indulgent benediction lands on every character’s head, and the sense of humor denied to serious, determined Max is spread evenly among the rest of the cast. They don’t see Max as ridiculous; he’s too foreign to be merely silly. Denied the Rushmore blazer (and his personal touch, a ludicrous red beret) at Grover Cleveland High, he takes to wearing an ill-fitting bottle-green velvet suit. But the public- school kids are just as accommodating of Max’s unconformity, especially if it means they get to participate in a school play about Vietnam (inspired by Blume’s experience) that calls for flame-throwers, real dynamite, and an onstage helicopter landing. (The cast party is even more elaborate.) Rushmore posits a world both absurd—almost surreal—and emotionally plausible, in which there’s a woman so beautiful that childish men and precocious boys keep building aquariums, which she doesn’t particularly care for, in her honor.

She’s All That doesn’t want to be a mess, and most of the time it isn’t. It’s just that the clever, pointed, smart-mouth movie that director Robert Iscove is making is based on a tradition of crummy, slipshod movies, so he keeps shoehorning in requisite scenes from those movies because his premise demands it. But it isn’t necessary, and the drop in energy whenever one of those scenes trots drearily by—the bully-payback segment in particular—is palpable.

Otherwise, She’s All That is tons o’ fun, if you can wade past the premise and its requisite corollaries. For whatever reason, Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is ruler of all he surveys at his tony Los Angeles high school. Taylor (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) is the foxiest girl in school and therefore his girlfriend. And maybe there are high schools where everyone, down to the most bewildered freshman, cares deeply that the financially and genetically blessed are happy together, and where voting for class president and the prom court is a huge deal with expensive campaigns and 100 percent participation. And maybe L.A. is still stuck in the ’50s, when artists and hip kids were considered weird and only being a jock-rich-kid-class-prez mattered.

And maybe if the king-to-be is dumped by his queen six weeks before the all-important prom, he will bet his friends that he can turn any girl on campus into one worthy of being seen with him. And maybe boys are so shallow that they don’t find interesting girls interesting, and so blind they can’t see that a petite brunette with gorgeous skin and tiny, Winona Ryder-like features (Rachael Leigh Cook) can be transformed by losing the specs. And maybe the artist chick won’t question why she’s being adopted by the airheaded socialites whose values she despises. And maybe everything will be better if we all wear pastel miniskirts and stop being interesting.

This premise for a glossy teen comedy has been retreaded into oblivion, but She’s All That puts some zing back into the formula, introducing the happy-go-lucky idiot for whom Taylor has left Zack—Brock Hudson (Matthew Lillard), a braying, self-obsessed wild man who is famous for having been thrown off MTV’s The Real World. (The film’s TV parodies are exquisite.) Early on, Laney, the geek girl in the splattered overalls who is this term’s project for Zack and his friends, takes him to an atrocious performance-art show, where he improvises a monologue that has the beatniks nodding in artistic sympathy. The leads are adorable, the dialogue at about the highest level this sort of thing reaches—mean, funny, and dead-on—and the inevitability of the major plot points in no way deters from their enjoyable execution.CP