“I can’t argue against anything you’re saying. But then again, I don’t have to. Because you’re 12 years old,” quips Bruce Willis’ brokenhearted cop in Wes Anderson’s absurdly delightful Moonrise Kingdom.
It’s a glorious film, and even those annoyed with Anderson’s hermetic dollhouse pictures might find something to cheer for here. It’s his most carefully constrained, painstakingly overdesigned movie, yet also his most gushing and emotionally accessible.
Anderson has veered back and forth, never quite cashing in on his initial promise of Bottle Rocket, which played like Mean Streets suffering from arrested development, or The Royal Tenenbaums, which was sort of like The Magnificent Ambersons by way of J.D. Salinger in desperate need of even more therapy. He’s a fussy filmmaker, utilizing such pointedly symmetrical compositions and kick-me music cues that 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was almost his masterpiece. Ditching real-life people altogether and shooting stop-motion puppets seemed both a confounding and brilliant career move for Wes Anderson. I wasn’t alone in suggesting that he should never again try to work with actual people.
Boy, was I wrong.
Moonrise Kingdom is perhaps best described by its creator as “a memory of a fantasy.” Taking place in the summer of 1965, we follow star-crossed lovers Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who each run away from home and strike up a tentative courtship on the island of New Penzance, somewhere off the coast of New England where everything looks like a slightly skewed Norman Rockwell painting. He’s a lispy Khaki Scout with delusions of grandeur and she’s a tightly wound Anna Karina-wannabe with severe eye makeup and a battery-operated record player. References to Badlands and Pierrot Le Fou abound, right down to the scissors, with Anderson having a grand old time goosing the young-lovers-on-the-run formula we have seen in every picture since Bonnie and Clyde, in part by making his main characters 12 years old.
In flashback form, we watch year-long pen pals Sam and Suzy communicate in cut-off, elliptical letters, flushed with ardent puppy love. In a brilliant device concocted by Anderson (and his co-writer Roman Coppola), the missives begin on the verbose side and are interrupted constantly as the montage wears on, until finally just a salutation is enough.
The movie is positively drunk on the kind of whimsy that only first love can conjure, but what makes it stick are heartfelt, dead-in-the water turns by the supporting cast. However obvious, Moonrise Kingdom is eventually an exercise in contrasts, and this rush of young love is never not tempered by a serious adult disappointment.
For starters, there are Suzy’s parents, played in a constant state of exhaustion by Frances McDormand and National Treasure Bill Murray. Both attorneys by trade, they don’t so much communicate as grill one another. (“That’s a loaded question,” he answers her most urgent inquiry.) Murray knows that she’s been sleeping around, and has been in denial for a long time. Leave it to Murray, with his deadpan minimalist indignation to respond to a domestic squabble by swigging a bottle of booze and throwing an axe over his shoulder, announcing that he’s “going to go find a tree he can cut down.” Metaphor alert?
There’s also a sublime comic turn by Edward Norton, as a scoutmaster in the midst of a constant identity crisis. This is all he’s ever wanted to do, and no matter how many hours he spends reading editorials by troop leader Harvey Keitel in Indian Corn magazine (and the sight of Harvey Keitel in a Boy Scout uniform alone might be worth the price of admission), he just can’t muster up enough gumption to be good at his job. Norton is ardent, committed, and loses sight of a lot of children at very dangerous intervals.
But the one I love most is Willis, mocked by Suzy as “the sad dumb policeman”—that’s a handle you can hang on most of the great Bruce Willis characters. Recently dumped by McDormand, he’s reeling in a pathetic bachelor trailer, hanging on to his job and little else with a commitment to duty that doesn’t preclude splitting a beer with a 12-year-old Sam while explaining how love just doesn’t work out sometimes.
Moonrise Kingdom shakes up Anderson’s typical static scope compositions with tighter framed, super 16mm zooms calling to mind the French New Wave. The sets are ornate, and the bold-stroke costumes function almost as Peanuts character signifiers. Like most of Anderson’s pictures, it’s almost asphyxiatingly over-orchestrated, yet this time around the camera feels a bit looser, and the actors feel freer.
There’s a push-pull going on here between idealistic young love and middle-aged compromise. What makes Moonrise Kingdom work so magnificently is that Anderson understands you can’t have one without the other.
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward and Bruce Willis
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