Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 25 May 2012 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 25 May 2012 (General release); 2011)
There is perhaps no other filmmaker working today like Wes Anderson. Call him quirky and twee, preppy to the point of aesthetic distraction, but he truly brings an unique, eccentric vision to the big screen. In fact, he is the closest thing to a filmic novelist that there has ever been in mainstream motion pictures. Anderson’s movies are literary to a fault, predicated on facets that fall squarely in the realm of prose. He builds elaborate backstories for his characters even if he barely uses them later on. His stories are circular and always come back to sequences previously highlighted but not explained. More clearly, he believes in both obvious and restrained subtext. His latest, the excellent Moonrise Kingdom, may at first seem like nothing more than an examination of first love. But look deeper, beneath all the Salinger-esque spin, and you’ll see a more universal, more satisfying examination.
Kingdom centers around a pair of runaways. Sam Shukusky (Jared Gilman) has escaped his tenure at a tense boys camp run with meticulous efficiency by Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton). With no parents and a foster family who no longer want him back, he sees this course of action as a last resort. Joining him is Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), the defiant daughter of local attorneys Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand). She hates her sheltered life and wants out. Initially, sad sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) treats the case casually, hoping the kids will simply return to their respective ‘homes.’ What he doesn’t know is that both kids want out of their rotten existences immediately and are willing to risk everything to become partners in life. With a hurricane threatening their Northeastern Island home and Social Services (Tilda Swinton) involved, they face a rather uphill battle.
Within the vast creative canon of Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom comes across as minor. It’s no Rushmore or Royal Tenenbaums and doesn’t have the scope or range of The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited. In the terms we are talking in, it’s a short story compared to the bigger canvases he’s crafted. Unlike The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which had a gimmick (stop motion animation) at the center of its strategies, we are dragged into a small situation with very clearly defined parameters. There’s no bigger picture to consider, no issue outside the immediate demands of the characters and their concerns. Yet because of the meticulous way he provides this material, because of the attention to detail and the desire to explore such minutia, the movie envelopes and moves us. Before long, we are caught up in the inner workings of the individuals and wondering if they will ever find the happiness they so obviously seek.
Of course, it’s all done in a very coy and clever manner, a self-aware style that constantly announces itself. This is the biggest beef with Anderson - he’s so ensconced in he how he presents a story that he forgets to keep the audience engaged. That’s not really the case here, though his usual flourishes seem to have escaped him. There is no major musical moment, no iconic song or cue that tells us about hidden agendas or subversive selling points (the closest we get is the use of “Kaw-Liga”). There’s no Greek Chorus, the narrator offered (Bob Balaban) acting more as a provider of details than a commentator on all we see. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is very little outer parallel to what takes place in Moonrise Kingdom except one - the nostalgia for the past and how certain we were that, even at the naive age of 12, we had the world all figured out.
The result is a fairytale without a moral, a feel good flight of fancy that looks great and signifies…well, that’s hard to say. The love angle is blatant. Sam and Suzy are clearly connected by their outsider status, and Laura Bishop has been making time with the sullen sheriff. But we get little else beyond said basics. Emotion is tough to come by in such a stunted, secluded community and Anderson seems to be suggesting that only massive natural upheaval, in this case, a major storm, can lead to some kind of epiphany. Instead, Moonrise Kingdom treats such a threat as a plot point, a device to get the characters from one part of the tale to another.
Luckily, the internal elements here have enough to offer to keep us connected. All the acting is excellent. Even the two leads, who have limited feature film resumes, acquit themselves admirably. Willis is especially good at playing downtrodden, while Norton does amiable anal retentive to a finely realized fault. There are a few surprises along the way, as well as a cameo that will make even the most jaded viewer crack a smile. Yet it’s Anderson whose the real star here, showcasing his familiar flair with wit and wonder. He makes the most of his late summer setting, parlaying the seasonal changes into something akin to a theme, and yet he also allows obvious set-pieces like the musical play about Noah to pass by without observation.
Now, we don’t always need a mere raised eyebrow to get our attention, nor is there a reason to ratchet everything up to over amplified degrees. But Moonrise Kingdom may be the first film in Anderson’s career that suffers from being a bit too subdued. Even the languid pacing of something like Tenenbaum‘s seems like it was sped up in comparison. There may be a rationale to such a slow, somber approach, but the end result doesn’t indicate same. Still, for its small pleasures and unusual aesthetic, Moonrise Kingdom is good. It may end up being a footnote in an otherwise fascinating career, but when compared to the rest of the mainstream moviemaking community, Anderson is in his own world: legitimate, literary, and wholly likeable.