Wes Anderson (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore) is a critics darling, and many are falling all over themselves to proclaim this his best yet. It may be, but I’m not among that group, as hard as I tried to love Moonrise Kingdom. It’s perhaps Anderson’s most Andersonian, or phrased another way, perhaps not his best, but perhaps his most.
What is wondrous is his equal treatment of the preteen leads. Even within the thin air of an Anderson picture, his leads—two so-called “troubled kids” in what they call love—breathe with freshness and reality. Kara Howard (Suzy) and Jared Gilman (Sam) manage to transcend the Anderson straightjacket of style and resonate as people who happen to be young, acting their age and experiencing emotions both intensely real and breathtakingly naïve. While Anderson and the script lean more toward respecting the integrity of the young lovers’ feelings and actions over those of the adults, the film never presses that point so heavily that it becomes a screed on the innocence and contrasting purity of youth.
How one enjoys/respect an Anderson film depends on how one views his style. Moonrise Kingdom is as formalist as a mainstream film comes that’s not set in outer space, has aliens, or exists in the heated brain of a dreamer or psychopath. Some call his style precious, others, twee. Moonrise Kingdom just misses becoming both, leaning instead toward the delightfully formalist. The geometric patterns of camera movement almost uncomfortably pull the viewer out of the narrative at times, but the energy of plot and character keep the film moving forward at a quick enough pace that the style finally becomes of a piece with what’s occurring in the story; those moments of confluence are lovely.
What threatens to derail the film is his treatment of adults and his casting. Anderson seems to be developing a Woody Allenesque reputation; that is, he has his favorites, plus some of the “big guns” want to work for him as well. Here the enviable cast includes Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Anderson favorite Bill Murray, and Frances McDormand (Oscar winner for Fargo) in the lead non-children roles. Norton fits his role perfectly, providing the right balance of realism and slight exaggeration. Bruce Willis, an underused, underappreciated and underchallenged actor, does the near-impossible, playing someone with less intelligence than himself with believability, a character struggling to find understanding and then expression of what he’s feeling and beginning to think. It’s a tender performance that helps holds the film together, and will likely be ignored come Award-time.
I get it that many in Hollywood wait until the men are 60 and the women are nearly 40 before reproducing, but that’s not the norm in the rest of the world. It strains credibility to have 62-year-old Bill Murray play someone with such young children, and to have 55-year-old Frances McDormand be the mom. I get that in an Anderson film, the actors are all riffing on their characters rather than playing them. But it might have helped the film to cast some age-appropriate actors as the parents. It would also have helped to give the adults some of the relational integrity that the kids possess. The young ones connect believably, with their sincerity, confusion, curiosity and growing perspectives providing the relational glue. Murray’s and McDormand’s characters live in the same house as husband and wife, but not in the same universe. Even with the clear strains in the relationship, it might have helped to showing something connecting these two other than parenthood. And (near spoiler alert), McDormand’s other relationship in the film is as far-fetched as her marriage seems to be. When we’re allowed, yea, encouraged, to respect and believe the central relationship of the film, it’s more disappointment than irony to not believe any of the others.
Lastly, the embarrassment of casting riches becomes a problem. We just get used to having these big stars and/or respected actors playing all these roles when the film throws us a number of curves—oh, look, that’s Jason Schwartzman (and isn’t he a Coppola and wasn’t he in…?), and OMG, that’s not really [insert name of famous gangster/tough guy star here], is it? A Brechtian style that pulls away from the story is one thing; playing “Guess what star is right around the corner?” threatens to take the film from merely heightened reality to an Anderson version of the “anything goes” end of Blazing Saddles.
There is a lot here to respect, especially in the script by Anderson and Roman Coppola. There are ironies and observations about youth and love, marriage and parenting that will likely fill many a film-school paper in the near future. The story is solidly constructed, providing a foundation for a presentation style that surrounds everything else in the film in quotation marks.
Delightful, brilliant, precious, too self-conscious? It’s really all in the heart and mind of the beholder. For this one perhaps more than most other films, the critics have reported—you’ll have to decide.