There's a thin line between homage and ripoff, and watching "Rushmore" walk that tightrope for 90 minutes could be as entertaining as American cinema has gotten in a long time.

This oddball comedy defies easy description, but it was obviously influenced by '60s British comedies, as well as Mike Nichols' seminal satire, "The Graduate." The most obvious (and most hysterical) inspirations are sendups of works by Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino.

But there's a lot more to the movie than just that.

In fact, this daringly original work is such a cut above the filmmakers' previous effort — "Bottle Rocket," a pretty nifty comedic crime caper — that it may set unfair expectations for their next project. It's certainly miles beyond any comedy made in the United States for the past couple of years, though there will surely be those who don't "get" a movie this subversively funny.

Co-scripter/director Wes Anderson and his cohort Owen Wilson deserve credit for discovering talented teenage actor Jason Schwartzman, as well as "rediscovering" Bill Murray, whose performance here may be the best thing he's ever done on the big screen.

Schwartzman stars as Max Fischer, an overachieving 10th-grade student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy. By concentrating on so many extracurricular activities (including the school's debate and fencing teams, as well as writing and directing plays for the Max Fischer Players), Max has neglected his studies and is on "sudden-death" academic probation.

However, the prospect of flunking out doesn't daunt Max, who undertakes a new endeavor: trying to impress the school's new first-grade teacher, a pretty widower named Miss Cross (Olivia Williams, from "The Postman").

Hoping to catch her eye, Max first gets Latin reinstated as a required subject, and with help from lonely tycoon Herman Blume (Murray), tries to build an aquarium on the site of Rushmore's baseball diamond.

There are two unexpected complications, however. The scheme finally gives Rushmore's too-lenient Dean Guggenheim (Brian Cox) the opportunity to boot Max from the school. Worse still, Herman also falls for Miss Cross, which sets off a war between the jealous teen and his former mentor.

It's hard to qualify what's best about this unprepossessing gem — the sly script, the laugh-out-loud gags and parodies or the peculiar, but charming, fantasylike atmosphere. Then there's the vintage '60s soundtrack, which features several sure-to-stick-in-your-head songs from Cat Stevens, the Who, Creation, the Kinks and John Lennon.

And there's no denying how good the actors are, especially Schwartzman, who brings the right blend of teenage gawkiness and knowing superiority to the role, and Murray, whose multilayered performance emerges on subsequent viewings. Kudos also to veteran character actor Seymour Cassel, who plays Max's all-too-aware barber father.

"Rushmore" is rated R for profanity, some fistfighting and staged violence (including wartime explosions and gunplay), vulgar sexual talk, quick glimpses of nude photos and use of an ethnic slur.