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Failing Grade 

Co-written and directed by Wes Anderson

In the 1993 hit Groundhog Day, Bill Murray played a smart-ass Today show- wannabe weatherman who grew into a human being. Murray added a core of warmth and romance to his comic arsenal without losing his zinging wit and crack-up irony, and he's kept that progress going, even in piddling vehicles such as The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997) and, now, Rushmore. Watching Murray try to ground this jejune fantasy is like watching Keith Olbermann maintain his intellectual stamina when he covered the Starr investigation for The Big Show and White House in Crisis on MSNBC. Like Olbermann, Murray proves that what's most amusing and, yes, cleansing in the face of absurdity is the free play of intelligence.

For years Murray was the screen's most accomplished put-on artist, charging hilarious vehicles like Stripes (1981) with his own iconoclastic zaniness. Now the put-on artist has become a put-in artist, filling out the thinnest comic outlines with humorous grace notes and hints of submerged feelings. He used to take over movies with careening zigzag moves. These days he's more apt to lean back and take the measure of lunatic situations -- albeit with his own bent yardstick. His ambiguous facial expressions are ticklish and suggestive; he involves an audience in all his wayward musings. In past films one of his specialties has been playing zany con men; he now seems to give everyone around him genuine confidence. And no one ever needed it more than the makers of Rushmore, a determinedly offbeat youth movie that comes to life only when Murray is onscreen. If Murray can't turn the film into a peak of comedy, he at least saves it from the pits.

After a Gen X colleague of mine at a Seattle weekly saw Bottle Rocket, the 1996 film by the creators of Rushmore, he told me it was the sole recent movie about guys in their early 20s that captured their sense of possibility. What do you say to a statement like that when the film turns out to be a sad-sack caper comedy? As far as I can tell, director Wes Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson, sell "the possible" because they don't have that much "actual" to offer. Bottle Rocket pushed the flimsy conceit of suburban kids trying to become professional thieves in an effort to order their unhinged lives. It got by -- barely -- on freshness and attitude. Rushmore feels like a regression.

It's about 15-year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), who devotes every ounce of his being to a posh educational institution named Rushmore Academy. It's not studies that magnetize him. It's his idea of the place as its own solar system, where he can join (or found) clubs about anything under the sun, from debating to the fine points of dodgeball. Any youngster or adolescent can fall prey to the illusion that school is the be-all and end-all of existence, especially a school that permits anything, including beekeeping. But Max is the only one who buys into that concept in this movie. He isn't a character, he's a masochistic construct: When it comes to school spirit, he's the buffoon who would be king. What's worse, the film aims to be empowering as well as slapstick-poignant. So Max uses his one semiauthentic talent -- amateur theatrics -- to get the recognition he wants and make everyone he likes happy. This movie peters out like a cozy, nothing daydream.

Murray enters the picture as local tycoon Herman Blume, who tries to inspire scholarship students like Max to overtake rich kids by any means necessary. Max thinks Herman is the greatest -- and Herman thinks Max has his act together. We soon discover that Herman is a hapless husband and the father of moronic twins, while Max is failing academically. There is comic potential to the push-pull attraction between this conked-out captain of industry and this gung-ho sergeant of prep school. And I did enjoy watching Herman and Max size each other up. (Thanks to the magic of Murray's performance, Herman appears to be doing that even when he's not with Max.) Max has his idealized vision of Rushmore to sustain him, while Herman has a maximum midlife crisis.

Still, not even Murray can keep the picture afloat while Max tries to pursue his crush on an attractive -- and widowed -- first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams). After the premiere of Max's stage version of Serpico, Herman takes the boy, the teacher and a doctor friend of hers out to dinner; heady with triumph and alcohol, Max comes on to the teacher and insults her friend. Whether it's a conscious echo or a coincidence, it plays like a failed satiric riff on the moment in My Left Foot when Christy Brown, disastrously, declared his love for his female doctor at a restaurant. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote that the My Left Foot moment was perhaps "the most emotionally wrenching scene I've ever experienced at the movies." All we get in Rushmore is the irritating adolescent whimsy of Max puffing out his chest because he's written a "hit play" and his dubbing the doctor a nurse because he's dressed in his workday drabs. ("They're OR scrubs," the doc protests. "Oh, are they?" Max responds.) Elsewhere in the film, Schwartzman's Max has a workable poker face, and Williams is appealing as the teacher. This dinner scene, though, is an embarrassment and a precursor of many annoyances to come.

In the course of this movie's spineless 91 minutes, Max gets expelled from Rushmore, rejiggers his act for public school and declares war on Herman for falling in love with his woman, the teacher. With the filmmaking equivalent of rubber bands and chewing gum, director Anderson patches everything up in time for a not-so-grand finale.

By the end, were it not for Murray, watching Rushmore would be like reading an article on "Why Adolescents Need Prozac." When an alarm goes off in this film, you wish you were waking up in Groundhog Day.

Opens Feb. 5.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Ulrike Koch

The nomadic people of Northern Tibet caught by Ulrike Koch's film lead a life dominated by ritual and tradition. They sing songs, make sacrificial offerings and invoke ancient spirits. Their world is harsh, demanding and noticeably free of the trappings and technology of our contemporary culture, though the film subtly points out that the modern, industrial world may not be too far behind them. Koch's film shows one of their most obscure rites, following a quartet of men -- and a few dozen yaks -- on a trek to obtain "the tears of Tara," their yearly supply of salt gathered from sacred lakes.

Koch, a German-born Sinologist and ethnologist, observes the Tibetans with a detachment that goes beyond the usual anthropological film, eschewing even the usual omniscient narration so familiar from National Geographic documentaries. She records their stories and songs and follows silently as they move along their way. Some may find Koch's lack of editorial observation unsettling or even tedious, but in the context of the film it can also be rather moving. There's no condescension, never a patronizing tone or a hint that we advanced Westerners might find their ancient customs and beliefs absurd.

As the Tibetans describe their practices and appeal to their gods, Koch presents them not as "noble savages" or naive innocents but as ordinary people living in a world still governed by ancient spiritual forces. As far as Koch's film goes, they seem to be right.

Plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 5-7 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

Co-written and directed by Brian Helgeland

The new Mel Gibson vehicle, Payback, is arguably the first major-studio release this year to have even a modicum of aesthetic ambition. For his directorial debut, Brian Helgeland -- who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 1997's L.A. Confidential (co-written with director Curtis Hanson) -- has chosen to adapt The Hunter, the first of 20 or so novels written by Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark) about a professional thief named Parker.

Let us pause for a minute to praise Donald E. Westlake. If prolificacy were in and of itself a virtue, Westlake would be, by that criterion alone, a paragon. Since the late '50s he has published more than 40 books under his own name, plus 20 or so as Stark and God knows how many more under at least a half-dozen other pseudonyms. But prolificacy isn't enough, of course, as the output of pulpmeisters such as Michael Avallone proves. Westlake, on the other hand, has the benefit of being startlingly good and remarkably versatile.

After he wrote his first few hard-boiled crime novels, Westlake undertook the Parker series in 1962. In The Hunter, Parker (no first name) was introduced as a powerful, smart brute, but as the series progressed he became more and more defined by his professionalism. Anger, vengeance and emotion gave way to a few simple questions: What move is most efficacious for pulling off the job? For getting away? For surviving? Parker avoids killing not out of any moral sense but because it always complicates matters.

Westlake achieved greater success with his comic crime novels, a number of which have been made into films, including The Hot Rock (1972), whose hero Dortmunder is the anti-Parker. Accordingly, the two most recent Parker books -- Westlake returned to the character not long ago after a hiatus of more than two decades -- contain comic moments rarely seen in the earlier novels. The series as a whole is the best extended elaboration of the hard-boiled pulp ethos since Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op novels and stories.

Payback is the sixth Parker film, and its predecessors are a motley bunch. The first was Jean-Luc Godard's Made in U.S.A. (1966), a very loose adaptation of The Jugger. Since then: The Split (1968), The Outfit (1974) and Slayground (1984), with Jim Brown, Robert Duvall and Peter Coyote, respectively, as Parker.

But hands-down the best Parker film is a previous adaptation of The Hunter. In director John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), one of the first attempts to develop a color version of film noir style, Lee Marvin embodied the spirit of the early Parker books. Westlake's story starts with Parker (named Walker in the film) seeking revenge after being shot and left for dead by his wife and his partner. It was Boorman's conceit that Walker may actually be dead: Point Blank is filled with fragmented flashbacks and surreal landscapes through which an impassive Marvin stalks like a zombie. Developing this notion required some major divergences from the original plot, but Point Blank, despite all its art-house pretensions, still comes closest to capturing the essence of Westlake's character. Working from the same material, Helgeland takes a wholly different approach. For more than half of the film he follows the book far more closely than did Boorman, at least in terms of story. After recovering from being shot, the Parker character, known as Porter (Mel Gibson), shows up in an unnamed city -- all signs suggest that it's Chicago, though Helgeland contends it's a cross between Chicago and New York -- in an effort to locate his faithless wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), murder his betrayer Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), and recover his share of the money he and Resnick stole.

But Resnick has used the loot to repay his employer -- the Outfit (that is to say, the Mob) -- for money he lost through a stupid blunder. Because he has shown the initiative and resourcefulness to make up for his mistake, he escapes the Outfit's wrath and is made a low-level executive in its local operations.

Proceeding with methodical determination, Porter finds his wife, finds Val, and then embarks on a campaign to force the Outfit to return his cut of the stolen cash. This involves confrontations with a series of Outfit bosses, played by William Devane, an unbilled James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson.

In general, Helgeland pushes the material in a commercial direction, making the light moments lighter and the dark ones darker. He adds a lot of humor, some clever plot elements and some grueling violence that is far more explicit than anything in either the book or the Boorman film. It might be said that he has Elmore Leonardized the material: The influence of 1995's Get Shorty and last year's Out of Sight is clear. (It seems likely that Leonard was probably influenced by Westlake, or vice versa.)

Certainly Gibson's Porter is way different from either Parker or Marvin's Walker. As the story unravels, he becomes more sentimental, reviving a romance with Rosie (Maria Bello), a hooker he used to work for. She gets off the film's single best line, a perfect characterization of Porter: "I think all those stories about you being dead were true. You're just too thickheaded to admit it." Unfortunately, as soon as she utters those words, Porter starts to soften up, displaying the sort of feelings that Parker (and Walker) would never show. Though the emotions may be softer, the violence isn't, and those who are squeamish about such things should be prepared to turn away or cover their eyes during several scenes. It may not help. Helgeland is savvy enough to know that the most effective violence is that which isn't shown. By far the most cringe-worthy moment here merely shows us Porter's reaction to what is being done to him.

For those who come to the film with no baggage, who have never read Westlake or seen Point Blank, Helgeland's film is, despite the occasional gruesomeness, a polished, fast-moving thriller with a '90s style. Gibson negotiates Porter's not-always-plausible changes believably, sometimes evoking memories of his Martin Riggs character in the Lethal Weapon films. Interestingly, although Porter occasionally addresses us in voice-over, suggesting that he is remembering the story, Helgeland doesn't cleave to this point of view.

The supporting cast is uniformly first-rate. Gregg Henry -- one of those guys you've seen in a million bit film roles and bigger parts in TV movies -- should make a big leap forward with this performance. He makes Resnick a totally loathsome villain -- an utter bully and, like most bullies, an even more complete coward. The moment when Resnick realizes that Porter is alive and looking for him is priceless. David Paymer and Lucy Liu are also memorable in far broader roles, but John Glover, who shows up for about two minutes (was his part trimmed?), and Bill Duke are wasted. (Duke is featured in a subplot that could easily have been omitted.)

Helgeland makes a solid debut as director here, finding a new angle through which to view the Parker character and doing so without exhausting the possibilities. Who would have thought that a pulp-paperback original from the early '60s would prove rich enough to bring forth two film adaptations and still leave room for a third?

Opens Feb. 5.
-- Andy Klein

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