Jul 18, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Gorgeous. Every frame a marvel to look at. Great style, exquisite taste. Drollness, panache, a sweetly deadpan sense of humor, great visual timing, a flat affect that belies a delicate sensibility, sweet emotion without histrionics; a wash of melancholy and unfulfilled longing for more in life: in short a Wes Anderson movie.
Moonrise Kingdom is a wonderful experience, the story of Sam, a troubled boy (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who are in love for the first time and want out of their normal worlds where they are misunderstood. He is an orphan in a foster home where he is unwanted, she is the pouty daughter of two loveless lawyers (the great Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), and they elope, wanting nothing to do with a world with which they are at odds. It's a movie about children trying to grow up to be better adults than the existing ones, into people who can still love and dare and live life without making so many painful compromises. It is also, surprisingly, particularly for an American film, about the blooming of sexuality, about the age where a crush can become a romance and boys and girls become men and women. Anderson treats this theme with honesty and sensitivity, instead of crassness. It is so mature and refreshing, it feels almost European. Moonrise Kingdom is hopeful and sad and the most emotionally rounded and satisfying of his films to date.
It's also lovely fun. His quirky world includes a troop of efficient, much decorated Khaki Scouts, led by scoutmaster Edward Norton, and a storybook house where mom and dad communicate with the children and each other through a bullhorn. The look is a mix of faded color postcards, French films of the Seventies, Fifties style Americana, and that unique Wes Anderson framing which puts people at odd placements in the foreground and stages delightful tableaux vivants or intricate choreographies in the background. He is a great visual satirist and gets many chuckles out of the smallest details in the frame. Anderson's undeniably lovely aesthetic has more than a whiff of the obsessive compulsive, as he crams so much gorgeous detail into each frame. But he is also a gifted choreographer of sequences, and the movie is a mix of frames that almost look like snapshots and extraordinary flourishes of clockwork-like movement. A couple of these sequences take your breath away. A long pan through the scout base camp at the beginning of the film must have been aided by digital stitching, because it seems impossible to pull off in real time, and a wonderful sequence at the Scout Hullaballoo camp where everything is in twirling motion, with completely different things happening in the foreground and in the background - extremely refined visual slapstick. When the plot calls for spectacularly expensive action sequences, he goes whimsical and stages them with props, in a deliberately naive way, which gives the movie a storybook quality.
The cast is indispensable: Bob Balaban as The Narrator, who looks like a garden gnome, Murray, McDormand, Norton, Bruce Willis, playing against type as a sad sack, Tilda Swinton as a brisk entity called Social Services, who looks like a cross between a Salvation Army recruit and a Pan Am stewardess, and in a surprise cameo, Harvey Keitel as the boy scouts' supreme leader, which is surely the best joke in the movie. The two young lead actors seem new to acting and they have a stiffness that conveys the awkwardness of romantic entanglements at their age. They also have the kind of deadpan that perhaps could be difficult to coax from overtrained, hammy child actors. Sam fares better than the Suzy, who, although beautiful in a moody French gamine of the seventies kind of way, is really quite inarticulate in front of the camera. Even if they are the same age, or perhaps she is a little older, she looks like she is about to sprout into a full fledged young woman, while he still looks like a child, which is true at that age in real life. Anderson gets a lot of sweet comedy with his hero's nerdy look and big glasses, but all he can do with Suzy is regard her serious loveliness. It works nicely as a conceit but I had a wee problem: I did not feel that these kids were actually in love. It's a nitpick, because even without chemistry between the two, a sweet strain of romantic melancholy pervades.
Wes Anderson's multiple stylistic flourishes threaten to wear out their welcome, and the film sags a bit in the middle, but to his and fellow screenwriter Roman Coppola's credit, they always add lovely emotional twists that keep the audience enthralled. Moonrise Kingdom feels to me like the most melancholy, intimate and emotional of his films. The balancing act he achieves by combining so much artifice with emotion is very impressive.
As always, the musical score is poignant and exquisite. This time, he enlists the help of Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra" and "Noye's Fludde", to help convey the themes of how to go about your life step by step, and of the stormy turmoil of love, but the first work also resonates as a musical metaphor for the composition of a film, with all the different instruments/elements/departments coming into place to create a harmonious whole. The rest of the music is by Alexandre Desplat, the scouts' tom tom music is by Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of Devo), and there are some wonderfully haunting Hank Williams songs as well.
Anderson, whether you like him or not, is a truly contrarian spirit in American films. He is a maverick, in his own quirky way. He has always bucked convention and I applaud him for sticking to his guns and making films with his unmistakable, and not easily replicated style. Actually, the style is ripe for easy imitation, and has been copied to death in commercials. What is not easily replicated is his sensibility, his wondrous command of tone, unsentimental yet moving, magical without being cliched, whimsical without being cloying, light yet substantive, which gently sways between arch, dry, funny, sweet, sad, and haunting.


  1. Great review, Judy. We just saw this today and you captured a lot of how I felt about it. Definitely more European in its sensibilities.