Of all the filmmakers of his generation, Wes Anderson has most firmly established not just a look, a tone, or a style, but a genuine all-encompassing aesthetic. It first came to fruition with his sophomore feature Rushmore, and every movie since then has been a poignant story of love, loss, and dysfunctional families with an exquisite soundtrack, stylized dialogue, Bill Murray, and painterly visuals. Moonrise Kingdom, his tale of first love, is unquestionably his, even if it isn’t among his best.
The movie stars newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as Sam and Suzy. Sam is the least-liked member of Khaki Scout troop 55, a group who are spending the summer of 1965 camping together on a New England island under the watchful eye of scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) and the island’s lead security officer Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Suzy is the daughter of lawyers Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who live on the island, and she’s unbalanced because she knows her mother is having an affair with Sharp. The two kids write letters back and forth, hatching a plan to run away together. They succeed in getting away from the adults responsible for them, but when a severe storm threatens to hit, everyone on the island pitches in to search for the missing duo.
Like David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, or the Coen brothers, Anderson writes dialogue that requires a certain spin from the actors. If the performers can’t find the music in them, the words take on a leaden quality. In this capacity, the adults in Moonrise Kingdom fare rather well. Willis gives the film a soulful center, while Murray and McDormand share the movie’s best scene, a late-night conversation in which they discuss painful truths about themselves. Those scenes reveal how much is missing from the interactions between the two kids. The child performers surely give the line readings the director wanted. However, they are both so emotionally flat, so one-dimensional in how they look and sound, that Sam and Suzy never feel like real kids, especially ones experiencing overpowering love for the first time. They’re just part of this precious diorama that Anderson has formulated.
In many ways, their relationship recalls the star-crossed romance between Margo and Richie Tenenbaum, the relationship at the heart of The Royal Tenenbaums. What passed between those two characters was fraught with sexuality and existential despair, and while Sam and Suzy have more physical contact than Margo and Richie, they don’t have any of the profound longing. Again and again, the child actors fail to bring out the nuances in their scenes and their situation, in large part because of how Anderson has directed them.
This discrepancy rears its head again at the end of the movie when Jason Schwartzman shows up to deliver some of the film’s best laughs. He’s one of the few actors -- alongside Owen Wilson and Murray -- who has a flawless ability to make Anderson’s dialogue flow, accentuating the laughs without sacrificing the emotional truth of the scenes. That depth is missing when just the kids are onscreen, and since those scenes take up a big chunk of the movie, it’s easy to grow bored or impatient.
Anderson has always composed his films so that the shots carry as much emotional weight and humor as the actors. His ability to employ stylized, often cartoony, visuals runs through every aspect of his films from costuming to the dialogue. Sam’s ever-present coonskin cap reveals as much about his personality as anything he says or does, as does scoutmaster Ward’s freshly pressed shorts. Anderson’s unquestioned gift is the ability to make the real world seem like a fictional place, and he does that throughout Moonrise Kingdom. People who enjoy being immersed in his singular vision won’t be disappointed at all.
Have no fear, Anderson hasn’t lost his touch and his muse hasn’t stopped talking to him. The shark has not jumped; there’s not even a dorsal fin anywhere in sight. That said, Moonrise Kingdom does reveal some limits to this gifted filmmaker’s talents. leave a comment --Perry Seibert