Dir. Wes Anderson
Starring Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, and also oh yeah I almost forgot Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and one other familiar face which will make you smile and is not Owen Wilson.
So what we got us here is the new one from Wes Anderson, that scion of emotionally stunted hyper-intellectual wealthy white people and their precocious kids. Anderson is a frustrating figure for me, because despite his obviously enormous talent for cinematic language (everything from camera framing to narrative construction to music), he often cripples the experience with his obsessive desire to shoehorn in his particular fetishes for children’s plays, bathrobes, tents, pajamas, board games, irritating people, etc. Not that I fault the guy for having a recognizable --even iconic-- style; my problem is that once you get past the quirky trappings and arch performances, you often find that there’s not really much else there. Anderson is so busy swaddling his characters in quirks and quips that he forgets to fill in the inside. Consequently, watching his films can be a somewhat hollow experience.
On the other hand, I have to admit that I like about as many of his films as I dislike. BOTTLE ROCKET still feels like a typical 90’s indie crime film, but it works on that level. When RUSHMORE came out, though, it blew me away. I thought Schwartzman’s character was brilliant and that Anderson got something really unique out of Bill Murray (at the time, his last three films had been THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE, SPACE JAM, and WILD THINGS). It was a unique and gorgeous film for its time, and seemed to herald a genuinely new voice. ROYAL TENENBAUMS was the first time I thought Anderson was getting a little cloyingly precious, but at least it does stay consistently entertaining (mostly due to Gene Hackman’s hilarious performance). LIFE AQUATIC was the first film where it seemed like people were turning sour on Anderson’s predictable bag of tricks, but actually it ended up being my favorite of his films due to its uniquely tight focus on one character (Murray’s Steve Zissou) and its lightly surreal touches. I thought I might be finally getting this Wes Anderson thing. But then came DARJEELING LIMITED and FANTASTIC MR. FOX, two films which I absolutely loathed. Not since M. Night Shyamalan went off the deep end has another artist I somewhat respect made such smarmy, self-satisfied pap and acted as if he was saying something deep. So, needless to say, I approached MOONRISE KINGDOM with extreme trepidation. The posters and ads didn’t exactly help. With its story-book font, precocious children, long list of big celebrity names, and self-consciously cutesy title, this one looked like it had every possibility of being sandpaper to my brain.
|It's shit like this, Anderson.|
But, I’m relieved to tell you it’s not all that bad. At least, it’s nowhere near as unbearable as DARJEELING or FOX, and probably better than BOTTLE ROCKET and even TENENBAUMS. It’s not that Anderson’s usual weaknesses are not in effect; they are. But by centering the thing on children, he adds a slightly different dimension that makes it work -to my mind- a little better.
See, Anderson’s adults have always been children. That’s the entire thrust of literally all his films. They’re all emotionally stunted, petty, directionless arrested development cases who don’t understand themselves and don’t seem to be able to synch up their fantasies with the real world. All well and good, but 5 live-action films in its become rather painfully apparent that his characters, like his cinematography, are composed mostly of broad, primary colors. The subtlety is all superficial; their issues are one-dimensional and their reactions are cartoonishly broad. There’s not a lot of psychological richness there, just a quirky portrayal of basic childish petulance and hurt feelings. Honestly, it had been wearing a little thin, and the uniqueness the characters had as his style cemented with RUSHMORE wore off considerably as they appeared again and again to go through the same motions.
The genius of MOONRISE KINGDOM -intentional or not- is that even though the lead characters are exactly like that, they’re not childish adults but actual children. So it makes sense that they’re petulant, chaotic, uncertain, and pumped up with deeply felt but broadly defined emotion. In fact, rather than seeming buffoonish caricatures, they actually feel much more real than your typical Anderson protagonists. The adults in his movies (this one included) have failed to figure themselves out, and are caught in a constant doldrums of old injuries and stagnant intellectualism. But the kids are going through all this stuff for the first time, and they’re actually learning and growing. In fact, our heroes Sam and Suzy are probably the most proactive protagonists in Anderson’s entire live-action canon.* That makes them much more tolerable to spend time with, and also more emotionally resonant since we get to take in the richness of childhood experience through an actual child this time, rather than ironically through a bored, unfulfilled adult.
Forget all those big names on the posters, this movie belongs entirely to Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a couple of pre-teen misfits who run away from their respective depressing lives on an East Coast island in 1965 to hike around the woods together. They don’t even get their names on the trailer, but they act circles around the adults here, giving guileless, complex performances which never seem trite or cutesy, even when Anderson’s writing threatens to drift in that direction. Remember those matching sweatsuit-garbed accessories to Ben Stiller’s character in TENENBAUMS? These are not those kids. These are actual characters, not props (there are a bunch of kids who do act as cutesy, lifeless props, but mercifully they stay mostly out of the limelight). Instead, Anderson gives a surprisingly earnest, unflinching look into the pain and wonder of early adolescence. These are kids struggling with a world of adult problems -- Sam is an orphan with anger issues, and Suzy is striking back against the loveless, regimented world of her lawyer-stereotype parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray)-- but Anderson wisely (maybe even perceptively) lets their pain simmer in the background and focuses more on their moment-by-moment experience of this strange, complex, and beautiful world.
|Believe it or not, these two will fucking win your heart.|
Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE last year gave about the best portrayal of a young man’s subjective experience of the world that I had ever seen, and compared to that Anderson still seems like frothy kitch. But I think he does capture something real in his rich evocation of the the stunning natural beauty that the kids make their new home. His photography is by turns his most realistic (shooting on location, handheld, with natural light) and his most poetic (turning the natural world into a redolent feast for the imagination) but always reflective of his keen eye for using atmosphere to conjure time and place. Real childhood is often much more mundane, much less intense, much less adorable, but you can’t deny Anderson’s ability to evoke, here, the most magical moments of being a young explorer in a endlessly fascinating world. At least through the lense of nostalgia, it feel emotionally true.
The adults, sadly, don’t work nearly as well. Despite the big names, they’re mostly playing thinly written caricatures who, truth be told, seem kind of unnaturally forced into a film which truly belongs to the kids. Although Sam and Suzy are the only children who really get much development, the other kids at least seem like complete constructions of fantasy children. The adults, on the other hand, are simply ill-defined and --much more damningly-- not particularly entertaining. Anderson’s working with a remarkable fantasy cast here, but mostly uses them as props and plot devices, which would be fine except that there’s tons of them and the film keeps coming back to them as if their drama is important or meaningful. Anderson is wise to contrast the youngsters’ chaotic momentum with the adults’ resigned stagnation, but they’re so sparsely sketched that treating them as central characters seems more like paying heed to his talented cast than to the requires of the story. Bruce Willis’ police officer character is a lonely man, and so he lives on a boat, because he’s isolated, that’s why his house is a boat, because it’s a metaphor. That’s the level of development we’re talking about here. And yet, for some reason he shows up in the climactic moment of the film and for no reason makes a major decision which saves the day. To say that this redemption is unearned is beside the point -- it simply unwarranted. It’s like if Chewbacca showed up at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI and dueled Darth Vader while Luke sat around and watched. It’s a resolution to a narrative arc which simply is not anywhere else in the film.
|Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, and Frances McDormand's eyes, and yet it's the thing that they're all looking at that's actually interesting. Who'd have thunk it possible?|
Not that any of the cast is bad, obviously. Jesus Christ, it’s Willis, McDormand, Murray, Norton, etc, etc. I’m not sure they could be bad, even as an act of patriotic defiance against the tyranny of cutesy indie filmmaking darlings. It’s just that they’re given almost nothing relevant to do. Including, it must be said, be very funny. Most everyone is actually dialing it back here, and giving fairly restrained performances. Which again, would be fine except that it means they’re stuck with little to do except stand around and not be very entertaining. You can't save underwritten with underplayed, so the ones who succeed best are the ones who go for Anderson’s usual broad, quirky misfit template. Norton reprises his slightly-naive-nice-guy schtick from DEATH TO SMOOCHY with excellent success, even though he’s playing the most useless adult of all (Sam’s “Khaki Scout” troupe leader, who first discovers Sam’s disappearance and subsequently stands around for the rest of the movie doing the exact same thing as Bruce Willis). Jason Schwartzman has a small but highly entertaining role as a seedy Khaki scout on the inside who is not above selling Khaki gear for $72 in nickels. Oh, and Bob Balaban (who you remember as the director of the hallucinogenic childhood cannibal classic PARENTS) does a nice job of wearing one of those red beanie hats that Anderson likes so much and talking to the camera**. But poor Murray, Willis, McDormand, etc, are stuck in limbo, going through the motions without much of interest to add. It might not be so noticeable if they weren't Willis, Murray, etc, etc. But they are, and they can't help but stick out a little as unnecessary for this kind of role. The movie might actually work better with a bunch of low-key character actors in there -- at the very least, it would seem less like Anderson is trying to cram a bunch of big name stars into a story which doesn't really have much room for them.
Still, the bits with the adults only feel so unnecessary in contrast with the remarkable vitality of the children’s journey. Anderson explores, with uncharacteristic boldness, their burgeoning independence, understanding, and even sexuality. Exploring children’s sense of themselves as sexual beings is a dangerous thing to do in this puritanical society, but Anderson walks the line with subtle grace, imbuing Sam and Suzy with an autonomy to articulate their as-yet-unfocused desires in a way which neither mocks them nor presents them as falsely mature. Which is the genius of his whole approach, really. There’s a genuine warmth to the way he presents them as alternately ridiculous and surprisingly prescient. The kids reward him with really fucking stunning acting. When fantasy bookworm Suzy confesses to Sam that she wishes she were an orphan (“Most of my heroes are,” she says) Sam delivers a nicely composed Anderson-y line (which I won’t spoil) -- but its his face that really says it, simultaneously conveying a great depth of pain and a child’s understanding of how to express that pain.
The film’s climax deflates a little bit because it switches to the adults’ (less interesting) perspective at a critical moment, but it must be said that the genuine power of the kids’ performances and the genuine power of their experience is strong enough to let the film easily coast to victory as Anderson’s most gripping and dramatic. It doesn’t entirely lose that saccharine fairy-tale quality which smells vaguely like detached irony, but I have to hand it to the guy for building some real momentum and tension and then trusting that to hold our interest without a bunch of indie trappings. It doesn’t entirely work (mostly due to the fact that it foolishly places the crux of the drama in the hands of those boring grown-ups) but by now you’re invested in the young protagonists enough that you’re genuinely concerned for them. Anderson sets the big climax in a spartan East Coast church during a raging hurricane. When the power goes out and you can just make out the kids hiding in the rafters wearing animal costumes (long story) you’re reminded of what a classic Stephen King setup this is. For once, Anderson cowboys the fuck up and treats this as a serious dramatic situation with setpieces, lightning flashes, the whole deal. It nicely suits the more primal, intense emotional experience of Sam and Suzy, who find that for once everyone else is on the same wavelength of extreme human drama that they are.
Where does Anderson go from here? I’m not sure. Of all his films, this one feels the most like the work of someone trying to tell a story through character, instead of someone trying to build a film around a bunch of artificial quirks. His ability to use cinema to evoke a variety of emotional states demonstrates more clearly than ever what a consummately skilled technical artist he is, but even now he can stumble over his myopic focus on telling similar stories about the same kind of (generally grating) people. Still, there’s a resolute genuineness about his portrayal of these characters; even when they’re ridiculous, he cares about them and never discounts or disrespects their real hurt, desire, and wonder, nor does he back away from allowing the audience to emotionally connect with them. Caring about things is the best antidote to that detached indie-hipster lazy irony which permeates his worst films. If he can care this much about little Sam and Suzy, I think he may be ready to trust his audience to care about things which have a little more weight to them. I’m not sure if he’s imaginative enough to write them or not, but for the first time in a long while, I’m excited to see what Wes Anderson does next.
PS: Anderson recently did one of those Rotton Tomatoes "5 favorite film" columns, and his picks are very interesting. More than anything, its interesting that he picks things which don't necessarily reflect the cutesy sensibilities of his own films. I'm sure he appreciates Kubrick's deliberate production and camera placement, but for Wes Anderson to pick A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as one of his favs seems almost shocking, given its tone and content. I hope this is indicative that his interests are more varied than people generally give him credit for, and that as his career goes on he'll attempt some things which have a bit of a different feel to them.
*I don’t quite count FANTASTIC MR. FOX because it is fundamentally based on another artist’s vision. Yes, it’s a insipid debasement of everything that makes Roald Dalh great, but as much as Anderson tries to turn the whole thing into an irritating quirkfest of armchair psychology, he can’t entirely weed out Dahl’s impish feistiness.
**This is 1965, so given his propensity for talking to the camera I’m going to assume we’re meant to assume this character is the father of either Wayne or Garth, I’m not sure which one would work better. I’m thinking he got tired of that stupid hat, so he moved the family to Aurora Illinois and let the next generation take over narrating duties.