Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Moonrise Kingdom (USA) Directed by Wes Anderson Written by Wes Anderson; Roman Coppola  Starring Edward Norton; Frances McDormand; Bill Murray; Bruce Willis; Bob Balaban; Harvey Keitel; Jason Schwartzman; Kara Hayward; Jared Gilman; Jake Ryan

Say this for Wes Anderson - to paraphrase Holly Hunter’s character Penny from The Coen Brothers O Brother Where Art Thou, he’s “said his piece and counted to three”. If there has been any question looming out there about whether this iconic auteur director was going to choose a divergent path that might stray from the signature style he so firmly established in films like Rushmore; The Royal Tenenbaum’s; and The Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom seems to make an emphatic statement to the contrary. Whether this is a good or bad thing will likely be proven in time, but for now there is admittedly something comforting about watching Wes do Wes.

Co-written with Roman Coppola (Owen Wilson and Noah Baumbach have also co-authored screenplays with Anderson), the characters here are somehow less compelling than those in Tenenbaum’s; Rushmore, or even Anderson’s debut Bottle Rocket, and on only a few occasions are we rendered unaware of the over-arching artifice at work. Anderson’s move toward adult sincerity in something like Tenenbaum’s over a decade ago, and, to some extent, carried forth in Aquatic and Darjeeling Express, is something the director has seemingly decided not to embrace and expand upon. Rather, the French New Wave influenced visual stylization remains dominant; the dry, staccato line deliveries replete with snappy retorts and non-sequitars (some of them quite funny, by the way) are fully in tact. In fact, if anything Anderson seems to have moved further away from the heart and soul of the characters on display and they largely remain intangible and inaccessible figurines there to serve the overall tone and pretty (and sometimes twee) storybook design instead of the other way around.

This is not to say that the film is heartless or soulless. Sleight perhaps, most definitely highly stylized, but the man in charge obviously has great fondness for the people he has created - just perhaps not as much as the world he has set them in. Taking place in 1965, nostalgia rules the day in this mostly fun coming-of-age fantasy fest and the sentiment on display has to do with the power of young (as in barely pubescent) love. The film’s ultimate effectiveness therefore rests almost solely on an audiences ability to relate to and invest in the lead characters and their youthful emotional tumult. For those who may harbor similar memories (regardless of the time period) Moonrise recalls what it’s like to be a young person on the cusp of entering one’s teens and how important family life, sex/hormones, and one’s peer group are in terms of forming a nascent adult identity.

Along with another sweeping dolly opening spying on the goings on inside a sprawling doll-house-like residence (Anderson had it built for the film), elements and themes like loneliness; parental abandonment; family dysfunction; emotional distance; infidelity; depression; social awkwardness; adult disappointment; Francophilia; water; children’s literature; uniforms; and obsessive love are all woven into the mix here in the same way that they, and others, run throughout Anderson’s oeuvre. Alexandre Desplat (Tree of Life; A Prophet; The King’s Speech; Fantastic Mr. Fox) does the score, which is buffeted by an eclectic mix of music from Benjamin Britten; Leonard Bernstein; Hank Williams; Francois Hardy; and The Choir of Downside School, Purley.

Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward play Sam and Suzy, two troubled, love-struck twelve year-olds living on the fictional New England island of Penzance (filming took place in Rhode Island), who attempt a daring escape from their surroundings in order to be together. The Suzy character is another version of a young Margot Tenenbaum, right down to the eye make-up, short skirts, and disaffected persona. The bespectacled Jared Gillman is a bit like Max Fischer-lite, another preternaturally bright misfit (this time an orphaned Khaki Scout camping with his troop) possessing a multitude of arcane skills and information. Hayward fares better than Gillman, her monotone oddness and unblinking forthrightness translating as believably compelling. The rest of the kids in the cast perform with mixed results, with Jake Ryan getting off some effective lines as Suzy’s younger brother (the one who actually speaks) Lionel.

There are touching moments sprinkled throughout, and when they coalesce with Anderson’s supreme eye for detail as evidenced by his intricately adorned sets and cleverly plotted and executed visual sequences (lensed on super 16mm film by the great Robert Yeoman) one is reminded of the immense talent Anderson possesses. There is simply not enough of this magic, however, and one cannot help but feel the wanting of better things to do for some of the major talent assembled (Bill Murray; Tilda Swinton; Frances McDormand; Edward Norton et al). The eminently watchable Murray (doing a version of Herman Blume from Rushmore) and McDormand are the most potentially compelling as Suzy’s parents/pair of attorney marrieds out of sorts with themselves and their relationship, but their sub-plot too suffers from a decided lack of development. Though some attention is also paid to the loneliness, smallness, and general ennui of the adult existence of characters played by Bruce Willis (as local island cop Walt Bishop) and Norton (as Scoutmaster Ward), one never feels truly emotionally connected to their individual plights.

Though it ends on a resonating high note, the latter part of the film feels a bit disjointed and overwrought, with a frenzy of mostly unnecessary action, though let it be said that even slightly above average Wes Anderson is much better than most of what’s out in theaters at any time. In the end there are enough amusing scenes and lines, as well as the aforementioned gorgeous photography and set/art/wardrobe design (the entire mis-en-scene is superb) to qualify the film as worthwhile viewing .

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