“What kind of bird are you?”
The H-Bomb: Wes Anderson is one of those truly unique directors who often leaves his audiences sharply divided. People either love his films or loathe them. Sadly, most of the time, I fall squarely into the “Loathe“ category. His work certainly does have the distinctive touch of an auteur, with meticulously composed shots that are beautiful to behold (the guy gets an ’A’ for presentation, no question). But his movies often seem so smug with their forced, self-conscious oddness, with characters who are so fucking weird, they’re not even remotely relatable, let alone likeable, that they just get on my nerves in the worst way.
Now, I know I’m running my mouth recklessly, as Anderson is a sacred cow of the art house scene, and my fellow film buffs would rip me a new ice-hole for speaking of him in such unfavorable terms, but Rushmore (which I love) aside, I’m just not a fan of his. My general disdain for Anderson’s movies out of the way, I must admit I found his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, to be thoroughly enjoyable. It does contain most of the things that usually piss me off about his pictures, but, like Rushmore, there’s a genuine heart behind all the quirkiness that makes it more endearing and less obnoxiously artsy than The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited.
Moonrise Kingdom, set on a New England island in the 1960s, is the story of star-crossed lovers Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) . . . who are kids . . . as in 12 year-old kids. Yeah, you can see why that might be a problem. But, before you start going, “Eeewwww yuck!”, just know that their love is more of a kindred spirit, emotional bond kind of love . . . yeah . . .
Anyway, Sam is an orphaned Khaki Scout who has just absconded from his troop, taking with him a number of supplies to survive in the wilderness. This is not him simply acting on a whim, but the culmination of several months of planning with Suzy, whom he met a year earlier. Suzy is the bored daughter of two lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who communicate almost exclusively in legalese, and who are emotionally . . . unavailable. Needless to say, Suzy wants to get away. So, she packs some books and her record player and sneaks off to join Sam on his adventure.
The disappearance of these kids has alarmed not only Suzy’s parents, but also Sam’s straight arrow Scout Master, Ward (Edward Norton), who goes to the island’s top cop, the melancholy Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who recruits the kids from Sam’s troop to aid in the search. But Sam and Suzy are soul mates, and they aren’t about to let a pack of uniformed brats, or a bunch of uptight grown-ups get in the way of their love . . . even if it means stabbing a few people with scissors.
What unfolds from there is a disarmingly sweet film about young love between two very eccentric young lovers and the equally eccentric adults around them. An ingratiating fable where one can be struck by lightning twice and still live happily ever after. It’s also very funny. Not funny in a way that will have you pissing yourself with laughter, but rather in a way that you keep a smile on your face through most of it. I’ll say it again, Moonrise Kingdom, written by the director and Roman Coppola, is unquestionably Anderson’s best film since Rushmore, mainly because he did something here he hasn’t done in over a decade, he made his characters human.
Sam and Suzy are, like any of his film’s characters, morose oddballs, but here he draws them with genuine affection, so instead of just saying, “Hey, look at these weirdos and how weird they are!”, he gets us to truly care about them. By the time the film gets to it, we want to see them sail off on their little boat together, free from the sour puss Bill Murray and the stuffy Frances McDormand.
The two young leads help a lot in getting us, the audience, behind them. This is the feature debut of both Gilman and Hayward, but you never would guess it from the assured pair of performances they deliver. Their faces are stoic yet, oddly, very expressive at the same time. No doubt, Gilman and Hayward are equally incredible. They make this movie.
But, they don’t make it alone, as the adult stars make very valuable contributions to the picture. Norton is hysterical as the tightly wound, overzealous Scout leader. Murray and McDormand are amusing as Suzy’s discontent, detached parents. It’s nice to be reminded that Bill Murray can actually emote when he wants to. The bit where he catches the two kids in the tent together . . . can I say priceless? Willis is simply great as the downbeat, often bewildered police captain. His turn here is up there with his appearances in Pulp Fiction and Twelve Monkeys as being one of the more interesting of his career.
My favorite supporting performance, however, has to be that of Tilda Swinton, who comes in late as a Social Services worker named . . . Social Services. She’s a cold, bureaucratic bitch with a big stick up her butt and no sense of humor whatsoever . . . and Swinton plays her to perfection.
All the film’s virtues aside, is there anything about Moonrise Kingdom that rubbed me the wrong way? Well, the youthful romance angle was handled nicely and, more importantly, tastefully . . . for the most part. There is one sequence on a beach, in which Suzy strips down to her underwear and they exchange some rather risqué dialogue that struck me as being slightly creepy. It never turned into a Larry Clark film, but I still felt kind of icky watching it.
As far as grievances, gripes, and general misgivings go, however, that about does it. I’ll just close out by reiterating that I really liked Moonrise Kingdom. It’s the Wes Anderson film for people who don’t like Wes Anderson films. Again, I can’t fucking stand the bulk of his movies, but this one worked on me like magic. It keeps his unique visual and tonal style, but dumps the pretentiousness that often put me off of his work. Hopefully, for Mr. Anderson, gems like this will, in the future, be the norm, and not the exception.