Bad Moonrising, by David Bax
There is a portion of Wes Anderson’s fan-base (just like any cult director’s fan-base, of which I’m sure I belong to more than one) that seems prepared to rubber-stamp their approval on anything he does. Some of these people apparently attended the same screening I did of the director’s newest film, Moonrise Kingdom, howling conspicuously at the most minor humorous asides. These people may not expect anything more than a retread of earlier films from Anderson but, I wonder, does Anderson expect anything more of himself? There are large sections of this new work in which he does indeed broaden his scope but, ultimately and overpoweringly, he’s content to rely on the same tricks as usual.
Moonrise Kingdom takes place on a New England island in the 1960’s. A boy named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a girl named Suzy (Kara Hayward), both run away – he from his Scout camp and she from her home – and attempt to live blissfully in nature, apart from the world that classifies them both simply as “troubled.” A policeman, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) and Suzy’s parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), along with the Scout troop and Suzy’s brothers, search the island for the missing children.
In keeping with the style he’s set out for himself, Anderson smothers his film in aesthetic touches. These embellishments are each minute but they are legion. To look at any frame of this film is to see the work of an exceedingly clever young man who seems to feel almost nothing for the world he’s created. His antiseptic and mannered approach makes the viewing experience something like looking at a diorama made of and about dead things.
That same numbing fate befalls his actors, apparently directed to remove as much emotion from their readings as possible while still breathing. Instead of representing some sort of personal voice of Anderson’s, this reads like nothing more than a film student quoting Robert Bresson. These actors aren’t paring down the ornamentations of their performances. They’re simply trying to remain still so as not to knock over anything.
As in earlier works such as The Royal Tenenbaums, the more experienced members of the cast seem better equipped to escape these dull trappings. Edward Norton in particular is the best thing on display here, grasping lovingly onto Randy’s goofy earnestness. Bruce Willis, in a sad and soulful mode, is also quite touching and the two make an unexpectedly delightful buddy cop team. Intriguingly, Jason Schwartzman, who in Rushmore gave much the same stifled performance as the children do in this film, seems to have graduated in a sense. His brief appearance is among the most vibrant and funny stuff in the film.
Perhaps I find myself particularly frustrated because this sorrowful predictability overshadows a number of elements I quite like in Moonrise Kingdom. The film’s themes are consistent, coherent and rich. Anderson is interested in the gulf between the intelligence that puts these children beyond their peers and the lack of experience that puts them behind the adults they fancy themselves to be. In one scene, Sam and Suzy dance on the beach to a Françoise Hardy record. They affect a studied approximation of hipness that they’ve likely seen on television or in films. Immediately after, when exploring a more intimate and romantic undertaking, they are heartbreakingly awkward.
Anderson’s previous film was Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-motion adaptation of a Roald Dahl book. I thought it was very good and I am disappointed that this new movie represents something of a backslide. Yet he does seem to have learned at least one thing, which is how to stage action. Mr. Fox was full of motion and the director applies that same approach to the climactic chase sequence here, which is terrific, showing clear growth from the stilted attempts at kinetic storytelling in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As an experiment, I would love to see what Anderson could do with a straightforward action script.
On the whole, Moonrise Kingdom is an improvement over most of Anderson’s output. But those hints of breaking the mold of idiosyncrasies he’s created for himself actually make watching it all the more exasperating. And to be clear, it is funny. Just not as funny as his devotees will try to convince you it is.