Two years after a noteworthy debut with Bottle Rocket, director Wes Anderson is back with Rushmore, another serving of offbeat, lighter-than-air humor. Named not for the Presidential mountain but a fictional New England boys academy, this is an appealing, low-key comedy that starts off promisingly, but sputters somewhat during its second half. Like Bottle Rocket, it will probably have its disciples, many of them drawn, in this case, by Bill Murray's shrewd performance as a prosperous would-be rou.

Anderson opens his droll comedy with what amounts to a visual primer on Rushmore Academy and its most celebrated-if not necessarily most learned-pupil. Max Fischer, played by newcomer Jason Schwartzman, is a cross between a dork and a nerd, an impossible tenth-grader with his eye on early admission to Oxford-Harvard would also suffice-provided he can overcome being one of the worst students at Rushmore. It's not that Max isn't clever. He's actually too clever. If extracurricular activities counted as much as actual grades, Max-captain of the fencing and debate teams and president of the chess and astronomy clubs, while editing the yearbook and the school newspaper-would be a Rhodes Scholar in the making. Instead, he's rarely in class and has been put on sudden-death academic probation.

As if that weren't enough, Max falls hopelessly in love with Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), a pretty first-grade teacher with a charming English accent, who is nearly twice his age. Hoping to impress her, Max-never one to think small-hatches a plan to build an aquarium in her honor, a scheme which leads him to Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a steel tycoon and Rushmore benefactor, for whom life seems to be slipping away. Pretty soon, the 15-year-old prodigy and the miserable rich man find themselves unlikely rivals for Miss Cross' affections.

Despite his ennui, which borders on manic depression, Blume would seem a more credible partner for the schoolteacher than the unmistakably adolescent Max, but the latter makes up in nerve what he lacks in experience. Max is definitely a wunderkind, as is evidenced regularly by the extravaganzas he stages in the Rushmore auditorium. After all, it isn't every high school that features parodies of Serpico and Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth.

Like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore doesn't hew very closely to reality as we generally define it. Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson have created characters who would be right at home in a Preston Sturges screwball comedy, yet there is a certain archness to Rushmore which keeps much of its humor at a kind of arm's length from the viewer. We recognize that some funny things are happening, but we also see the effort involved.

In the title role, Schwartzman is an interesting discovery. Reportedly cast after a nine-month talent search, he certainly conveys the oddness of Max, his compulsive variety, but also the lighter side of his need to excel. Max's occasional chats with authority figures, even the school's headmaster, played with barely concealed bluster by Brian Cox, are nearly a dialogue between equals rather than the lopsided dressing-downs they would likely be in real life.

Max's battles with Blume for the affections of Miss Cross are considerably more mean-spirited, yet surprisingly unfunny. Neither of her admirers plays fairly and neither seems to grasp that she is fed up with both. Max expects to win her because he's so smart, while Blume expects to win her because he's so rich. It's a classic battle, but it's presented with scarcely a trace of irony, even if it does offer a sad commentary on the darker side of privilege.

Rushmore will no doubt have its admirers, who will cite the intelligence and fun of its first half, but it's precisely because the first half is so novel that the second half seems so familiar. On the positive side, Rushmore boasts an endearing soundtrack of 1960s British Invasion songs including such curiosities as 'Concrete and Clay' by Unit 4 + 2 and 'Jersey Thursday' by Donovan. They seem entirely appropriate for this curious but endearing movie.

--Ed Kelleher