“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
A while back when I was taking a screenwriting class, I tried to explain to my professor what drew me to Wes Anderson’s peculiar blend of super-symmetric surrealism. I was struggling to justify the writer/director’s appeal without using the word “quirky” or resorting to “I like Bill Murray,” when he interrupted and put forward a more eloquent theory. For many teenagers, Anderson’s films are some of the first they see that are noticeably….different. That break from your typical Hollywood blockbuster style, and consistently. It’s that thrill of realizing that you’re watching something different and more importantly, liking that difference. That kind of creative crush can make one a disciple for life.
First love can be something like that – a shared sense of otherness, of finding someone else who doesn’t quite see the world in the same terms as the popular common denominator. There’s something childish in it, perhaps, but there’s no denying the simple, grasping romanticism behind such an “us against the world” mentality.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is a touching tribute to young love, told with typical sincerity by Anderson and his co-writer, Roman Coppola. Sincerity is an odd quality for a director who sports quite a few trappings of modernism (or post-modernism, or whatever term one wishes to refer to the 20th century trend of ironic detachment): a near-fetishistic obsession with objects that may or may not be symbolic; a narrative tendency to skip over or otherwise obfuscate climactic action; witty, possibly empty repartee amongst upper-middle-class intellectual elite types. But underneath his games of carefully arranged mise-en-scene and deadpan delivery, Anderson has always had a purpose, and a message: that family, however one chooses to define it, can emerge out of the most unlikely of places.
The film starts by introducing us, vaguely, to a very traditional kind of family. We find ourselves in one of those remarkable old houses that only exist in New England and Long Island, the camera panning, in typical right-angle Anderson fashion, into every cramped study and bay window. The various members of the Bishop family, including Suzy (Kara Hayward), her three brothers and their parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) flit from room to room to the sound of Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” like figures in a dollhouse. Such extraordinary spaces are another common feature of Anderson films: the house in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the submarine in “The Life Aquatic,” the train in “The Darjeeling Limited.” More than ever, Anderson is ramping up the playful, storybook nature of his cinematic world. A narrator (Bob Balaban) pops up from time to time to cast about omniscient data, and Suzy often pauses in the middle of her adventures to read aloud from her collection of girl-power fantasy library books. At one point, she reads to a group of lonely little boy scouts, like Wendy with the Lost Boys.
In Neverland, children never grow up, but Andersonland is a little different. Certainly the grown-ups are all a bit childish, but the children are all remarkably beyond their years (again, see “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”). Suzy, dissatisfied with life at home, runs off with Sam (Jared Gilman), the outcast of the local scout troop, in order to create their own mini-utopia in the island wilderness. It’s an immature, idealistic plan, but put into action with such practicality and determination that the wishy-washy, ineffective endeavors of the island’s adult population seem all the more adolescent by comparison. Suzy’s mother carries on a rather chaste, seemingly pointless affair (invisible to all but Suzy) with the earnest local policeman (Bruce Willis), while Willis and Ed Norton, the head of the scout troop carry on a fruitless search for the two young lovers.
Which is not to say that Anderson has no sympathy for these dithering dunderheads. You wouldn’t blame a kid for being a little unsure of themselves, would you? In Andersonland, it’s natural for our childhood confusions to remain to some degree permanent. Indeed, the only adult who is ruthlessly good at what she does is simply identified by her job title, Social Services (Tilda Swinton), suggesting that a little too much self-definition can be a hazardous thing.
Appropriately for this role reversal, Anderson has moved his stable of talented, straight-talking actors to the back-burner. Murray, Willis, McDormand, Norton and Swinton perform as admirably as we would expect from their combined 300 years or so of professional experience, but it’s Anderson’s new finds, young Hayward and Gilman, who really give the film a jolt of life. It’s unclear whether these kids are just that good or whether Anderson’s preference for monotonous delivery is giving them an assist, but in any case their sense of timing, both comedic and dramatic, is extraordinary. The one pseudo-adult that stands out is Jason Schwartzman as a sort of rogue scout master, channeling a bit of his anarchic “Rushmore” performance as a mercenary go-between for the blurred adult and childhood worlds.
Those who have not already been won over by Anderson’s brand of humanist absurdism are unlikely to be convinced by “Moonrise Kingdom.” It’s not as self-indulgent as “The Life Aquatic,” certainly, but it doesn’t quite reach the perfection of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which has a resonant character (ad a corresponding insecurity) for everyone. Still, I will relentlessly defend this American auteur for his ability to “make it strange.” In each and every Anderson film (yes, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” included), he forges a world very grounded in reality – that is, in exquisitely detailed, tangible colors, textures, sets, costumes. But he then presents us this world in bizarre fashion: perfectly centered compositions, blunt dialogue, highly choreographed movement. By making his worlds unfamiliar, the ways in which they are the same to our own (often on an emotional level) immediately leap out at us. This is not quirkiness for the sake of being indie – he knows what he’s talking about.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars