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Cynicism absent in Wes Anderson

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 13, 2012 at 4:15 a.m.


Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) look to Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman) to help them out in Wes Anderson’s lyrical Moonrise Kingdom.

— I love Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. That much is easy. Love does not require — and often cannot sustain — demystification. To even begin to talk about why you love what you love is to introduce doubt and to invite reappraisal. And so most of us tend not to think too much about that which makes us happy.

(But as you folks remind me each week, I am generally compelled, or at least expected, to try to write about movies regardless of whether or not they make me happy.) But I can admit to not completely loving some of them. I thought The Darjeeling Limited was heavyhanded and underbaked, and while I admired The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou when I first saw it, I cannot tell you much about it now other than it felt inchoate and melancholy, a movie that hinted at meaning it couldn’t bring itself to express.

Some people would say that makes it a secondrate movie, and maybe they are right, maybe what I perceive as well-intentioned mumbling is only arrogance disguised. You could say that, and people do, and people who hate Wes Anderson movies have that right. Call me an apologist, but I don’t think Anderson does much cynically and that while his movies may, from time to time, overrun the filmmaker’s ability to cogently express the emotional melange that compels him, he’s being as honest as he can be with us.

As you have no doubt heard, Moonrise Kingdom is a love story about two misfit 12-year-olds (are there any other kind?), Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphaned boy who abandons his Khaki Scout Troop, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a moody girl who primarily views the world through the remove of binoculars. They “elope” in the summer of 1965, as a terrible storm is bearing down on the New England island where they live. (The fictional island is named “New Penzance,” likely an allusion to the Cornish city of Penzance, where Gilbert and Sullivan set their comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, in which orphans also prominently figure.)

Their disappearance prompts the formation of search parties — Sam’s fellow Scouts collect their weapons (he’s a fugitive!) while Suzy’s attorney parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) prevail upon local law enforcement, in the person of Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), to track down their girl. It doesn’t take long before connections between the two missing kids are uncovered, and Sharp makes common cause with Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) as they try to bring Sam and Suzy safely home.

Yet while the trajectory of these characters is important — Sam and Suzy are very serious about their love, even if they cannot articulate its reasons — the grace of Anderson’s filmic grammar is reason enough to watch. He builds dollhouses and populates them with people who seem less actual than the product of dreams: Jake Ryan, the young actor who plays Suzy’s younger brother Lionel, somehow exudes a 40-yearold’s worldly fatigue; Willis, as the gentle sad sack Sharpe, is more heroic than he ever was in any of those blow-upgood cartoons he used to star in; and the two leads, neither of whom had appeared before in a film, seem preternaturally tender, awkward and alert.

These aren’t people we know — they are people we imagine we used to know, maybe people we imagine we might have been had we grown up in different circumstances and been exposed to, say, Benjamin Britten’s opera for children Noye’s Fludde (which Anderson performed in as a child) or his The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (which I vaguely remember from my own childhood).

People make a lot of his style, which is easily identifiable and therefore subject to parody (Jeff Loveness, a writer for Jimmy Kimmel, posted a shrewd parody imagining Anderson’s version of The Amazing Spider-Man on YouTube a couple of years ago), but it’s also a distinctive and freighted semiprivate language that some might faintly recognize as the tender prattle of a lost twin.

There is something in Moonrise Kingdom that evokes the very different Canada, Richard Ford’s latest novel, which also features an orphan (of a sort) and a lost twin. Early on in the book, Ford quotes the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, who wrote “composition is the arrangement of unequal things.”

Anderson’s visual style embodies that tenet, as he favors long slow takes, with characters addressing each other in profile. He constructs tableaus, in the manner of the painterly Peter Greenaway, that touch the frame here and there with allusions to the Bible and pre-Beatles’ pop culture. (While a Davy Crockett coonskin cap featured prominently in the film might at first seem a mild anachronism for 1965 — the fad hit its height a decade earlier — Fess Parker essentially reprised his role as Crockett in the Daniel Boone television series. While the real Boone wasn’t in the habit of wearing coonskin caps, the Daniel Boone series was famous for being historically inaccurate.)

Anderson — who was born in 1969 — builds his films with sticky, well-chewed wads of memory and balls of string, the back-of-the-closet detritus of childhood, recovered collections of 45s and fan magazines, the skewed perspectives of the alert and solitary child who perceives the world through books and glassine envelopes of colored stamps that arrive in the mail. This particular movie is presented in Instagram earth tones, warm golds and browns, the colors of boxed- away Kodachromes.

It may not be exactly the childhood we experienced — it may be more along the lines of the childhood we wished for (though Anderson’s children are never thoroughly happy) — but it reminds us of the way we (mis)apprehended the world when we were children, the way we strained to hear the adults in conference, the way we looked for clues in their manner and fastened our attention on what, from an adult perspective, might seem random or inconsequential details.

And Anderson’s prime subject, in all of his films, is irrational yet unequivocal love.

Which just might be the only subject worthy of adult attention. Or at least all you need.


MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 07/13/2012

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Lee10 says... July 13, 2012 at 1:13 p.m.

I saw Moonrise Kingdom last week. I wasn't a fan of Wes Anderson movies to begin with; I don't know what I was thinking. The TV trailers made it out to be a real knee-slapper & I can't resist Bill Murray in anything. The reviews, like yours--which, by the way, I enjoyed, praise the film. Critics applaud the storyline, visual effects & performances. I'm really not sure where I missed the boat, but I considered it one of the most boring, uninteresting, pointless, totally humorless movies I've seen in a long while. I kept thinking, this has GOT to get better & I hung in there. By the nonsense ending, I could not believe I had paid $9 to watch such drivel. One thing is certain: I'm still not a fan & I will not be tempted to sit through another Anderson production.

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bork says... July 13, 2012 at 5:01 p.m.

Understand. Anderson is an acquired taste, and a lot of really smart people find his movies overly mannered and underpowered. I get that, and wonder sometimes if he wouldn't be better served by adapting someone else's story (like he sort of did with Fantastic Mr. Fox). But I loved this one — as always, your mileage may vary.

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