Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: "Moonrise Kingdom"

I go back and forth on Wes Anderson. He's a very specific kind of filmmaker, to the point that there is now a recognizable "Wes Anderson style" that is much derided but little imitated. (Do a YouTube search to view some fun-poking examples.)

From the disaffected characters who speak their dialogue in deliberately flat cadences, to the oddball time-warping fashion sense, to the now-obligatory reliance on obscure pieces of music to punctuate and comment on the proceedings, Anderson's films are stylistic carbon copies of each other, merely swapping out storylines and characters (though many of the same actors reappear time and again).

The problem with that is there's a dread sense of sameness to his movies. It's like going to a bunch of different restaurants and ordering the exact same meal. There will be some variations in flavor, texture and certainly in quality, but you walk in knowing what you're going to get.

I liked "Rushmore," and liked "The Royal Tenenbaums" a lot, but "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" was so wretchedly unwatchable I didn't even bother seeing his next one, "The Darjeeling Limited."

Personally, I thought the best marriage of Anderson's aesthetic with the material was the stop-motion animation gem, "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Perhaps it was just because using fake furry critters instead of humans represented the first distinct break from his previous body of work, and that made it seem fresh.
His newest, "Moonrise Kingdom," is a return to the rut.

The sole variation here is that the spotlight is on children, while the adult characters populate the background. It's 1965 and on the isolated New Penzanze Island off of New England, 12-year-olds Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop decide to run away together. Of course since it's an island, they don't really have anywhere to go, but it's more a journey about rejecting where they come from than anywhere they're heading.

Sam is an orphan living with foster parents, but actually spends most of his time at Camp Ivanhoe, a summer camp for the Khaki Scouts of North America. The man/boy commander, Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), acknowledges that Sam was the least popular scout, but is still chagrined by the resignation letter he leaves behind.

Suzy has three younger brothers, and lives in a rambling multi-story house called Summer's End with her three younger brothers and parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), who are both distracted lawyers. Suzy wears neon-colored eye shadow (apparently impervious to the elements) and loves to read books where girls go on adventures in fantasy lands or on alien planets.

After meeting at a church play a year earlier, they've been corresponding by mail and planning their escape, which throws the entire island into a state. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), whose position appears to be nautical but represents the only semblance of police power, is brought in to lead the search with the help of the Khakis. Hovering around the edges of the story is Tilda Swinton as Social Services -- that's how she refers to herself, no name -- threatening to whisk Sam off to an orphanage.

Sam and Suzy are played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, respectively. They both seem like engaging performers, but it's hard to judge their true talent since Anderson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Roman Coppola) requires them to say all their lines in unemotive declarations. They always sound like they're announcing themselves rather than talking to each other.

(Both are also rather mush-mouthed, and I often struggled to understand what they were saying. I suppose you could make the argument this makes them sound more like authentic kids, but verisimilitude has never been Anderson's bag.)

My biggest problem with "Moonrise Kingdom" is that it's a coming-of-age story in which both the children already behave like cynical, melancholic adults. If they're this jaded and disconnected at 12, how are they going to stand each other at 42?

Consider this exchange of dialogue after a violent encounter with the other scouts, and the Khaki mascot pooch has been slain with an arrow:

Sam: They got him right through the neck.
Suzy: Was he a good dog?
Sam: (pregnant pause) Who's to say?

That sure doesn't sound like any kid I knew. For that matter, why does Sam wear a coonskin hat, despite it being the scorching finale of summer? How come he smokes a pipe? Why is Suzy obsessed with Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," in which different pieces of symphonic music are layered upon each other one by one as a learning exercise?

I think these elements exist in the movie simply because Anderson finds them delightfully quirky, and includes them simply for the sheer juxtaposition of eclectic bits ‘n’ pieces. He's like a hipster standing at the wardrobe of pop culture, plucking out things he likes and trying them on.

Often the ensemble is a genuinely innovative collage of colors and patterns, a bold new way of looking at old things. Sometimes, as with "Moonrise Kingdom," the result is so blastedly twee and self-satisfied that we just want to sigh, pat the movie on the head and tell it to run along.

1.5 stars out of four


  1. At one point I realized Harvey Keitel looked a lot like Captain Crunch, and I could not suppress prolonged laughter. The casting was nothing I'd have thought of and I can't think of any casting of that role I'd like better.

    If you haven't mythologized your first thoroughly life-altering childhood love you might not resonate with this picture. I must have, given my emotional response to this picture. When two kids decide to save themselves by saving each other, nothing the grown-ups do or say gets in deep. I thought Wes nailed that.

    I could use another dozen or so pictures half this good or better about kids whose library cards get a real workout.

  2. Sam's coonskin cap is self-expressive, an affectation he's willing to suffer for in the heat. That Suzy finds it odd, comments on it, and then stops bringing it up says a lot about the kind of permission they give each other to be willfully strange, and each one seems so relieved to have found someone who won't complain - or worry - about trivial idiosyncrasies.