1 hour, 34 minutes
Wes Anderson movies are not for everybody, but I think that’s a good thing.
Too often in our homogenized Hollywood, the director’s voice is lost and preference becomes all about the conventions of the genre. But Wes Anderson makes films that are purely Wes Anderson. He’s a genre unto himself, in fact. It’s almost better to think of Anderson’s films as static pieces of art, partly because you know that’s one way he’s looking at them. Each scene is meticulously designed and crafted. Each set is painstakingly pieced together. And each shot feels like it could be a tableau. The shots almost feel two-dimensional, as thought the action were playing out in front of a flat backdrop.
This may sound cheap, but it looks anything but. These movies are beautifully composed and colored thematically with a palette that enhances the narrative. It’s all so carefully orchestrated that some people complain that the films are static — even boring. No, Wes Anderson movies are not for everybody, but they are definitely for me.
This week I rented Anderson’s latest, “Moonrise Kingdom,” about two 12-year-olds in love and on the run on a small island in New England in 1965. The boy, Sam, is an orphan with no friends. As an accomplished Khaki Scout, he’s been trained in wilderness survival and various and sundry other skills, though none of them social. The girl, Suzy, is fed up with her parent’s loveless marriage and her seemingly meaningless existence. The two strike up a conversation, then a correspondence, and finally a friendship — two lost souls who want nothing more than to escape from lives they feel trapped in.
This may sound melodramatic, but that’s what Anderson does best. His shtick is to take quirky misfits, feed them lofty lines to be delivered with deadpan gravity, and spin up bizarre situations that escalate through the story until everything and everyone crashes together at the climax. The result of the catastrophe is always a general sense of better understanding and well-being by the characters. His movies are like a kind of narrative therapy for the people that occupy them. And maybe for the audience as well.
“Moonrise” is no different, so be forewarned. If you’ve tried Anderson before without success, don’t be fooled into thinking “Moonrise Kingdom” is going to be the one for you just because it stars Bruce Willis instead of Anderson regular, Owen Wilson.
When Sam and Suzy finally do put together and execute a plan of escape, it turns the normally quiet island of New Penzance upside down. Willis plays Police Captain Sharp, in charge of ensuring the safety of the local residents. He’s also having an affair with Suzy’s mom, Laura, a lawyer played by Francis McDormand. Suzy’s father, Walt, also a lawyer and played by the ever-brilliant Bill Murray, suspects the affair, but blames himself. Blamed for the disappearance of Sam, and by extension, Suzy, is Scout Master Ward, a man who lives for nothing more than to mold boys into men, and takes his failure with Sam very personally.
Finally, flying in to take charge and take Sam into custody is Tilda Swinton, known only as Social Services. These, along with a motley crew of scouts, townsfolk, and one unfortunate dog, will lead a merry chase back and forth across the island, all the while with a maj or storm brewing just offshore.
I very much enjoyed “Moonrise Kingdom,” a sweet and touching coming-of-age story, but as I said, Wes Anderson movies are my cup of tea. The film features some amazing, understated performances from a great ensemble cast, but most of the work goes to the two newcomers in the group, Sam and Suzy. The former, played by Jared Gilman, is a cypher — not particularly cute or charming, but self-assured. Suzy is played by Kara Hayward and does most of the work with her eyes. Both pull off the Anderson style beautifully. They do it so well that, for a while, I was a little annoyed because it seemed that they were simply mimicking the style rather than bringing anything to it. But, either the actors got better or I got used to it, because by the end I was completely sold.
I have to say, there are a few moments in the film where I thought maybe Anderson was going to go too far. As the children, and that’s what they are, true love or no true love, get more intimate I started to get a little squeamish, but thankfully it never gets out of hand. Also, this is probably Anderson’s silliest film, even sillier than the animated “Fabulous Mr. Fox.”
This film, like his others, is very funny, but not necesarily in a zany or slapsticky way. Nevertheless, there are moments when I found myself rolling my eyes a little, a dangerous thing for a movie like this. These films are completely sincere, and if you don’t buy into that, if you let cynicism in even a little, the whole structure could come crashing down. Luckily, despite a little turbulence, Anderson was able to stick the landing, and left me feeling better than I did when I started.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is rated PG-13 for a scene of violence, mild sensuality, and adult themes.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.