Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - Directed by Wes Anderson

If Wes Anderson's last couple films (The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)) seemed to me to show a decline is both quality and focus, it was with great anticipation that I went to see Moonrise Kingdom, hoping for a return to top form. I’ve been a follower and fan of Wes Anderson and his films since the late 90’s. What I love about his films, when he's at his best, is the juxtaposition of comedy and melancholy. Yes there is hilarity, but there is also truthful human nature. Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) are my two favorite Anderson works and probably straddle that line between comedy and melancholy the best. But it has been over a decade since those films and I was hoping for a return to that form with Moonrise Kingdom. I was not disappointed. 

Written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom is the story of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), two 12-year olds who have fallen in love. Sam is a Khaki scout at a camp on an island off of New England and Suzy lives on the far end of the island and the year is 1965. They met one year prior at a performance of Noye’s Fludde, an opera based upon the story of Noah’s ark. They planned all year long to run away and spend time camping together in their own “Eden”. Sam runs away from his camp and Suzy runs away from home to meet up together. We follow Sam and Suzy as they innocently go through the rites and rituals of love and friendship. Meanwhile,  everyone else is on a hunt for the two lovers on the lam---Sam’s camp counselor (Ed Norton), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis), Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), among others.

There are times in this film where the sheer density and weight of the content onscreen is so thoroughly overwhelming that you literally struggle to absorb everything being shown to you. This is not a knock on Anderson, but a tribute to his abilities as a director in being able to so thoroughly control his design. Wes Anderson is a director who tells a story through several mediums, often at the same time. His symmetrical compositions and framing seem to speak to some need to find order within the everyday, and Robert Yeoman's cinematography captures Anderson's vision perfectly. His characters speak without inflection…but instead reflect archetypes in their uniform, accessories and manner that convey affectation, motivation, and emotion. Anderson parallels music (and the music is an entire discussion unto itself in this film and rather dense with significance) and related performances (the Noye’s Fludde), or narration that furthers character development or our understanding of the characters, rather than strict dialogue progression. Thus in watching this film, one must be cognizant of the fact that Anderson’s mode of storytelling often comes from oblique angles, rather than straight ahead, and often from several directions at once. Trying to think back upon this fast-paced film is rather daunting and would likely reward multiple viewings as does Anderson’s best work.

The performances of the two young leads...Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are unpolished and rather touching. They capture the feeling of being 12 in all its confusion and embarrassment. Bruce Willis may give the best performance in the film as the sheriff, a rather resigned and weary man with some past hurts and regrets. He surprised me here with how effective he was. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Edward Norton are uniformly perfect, as is Jason Schwartzmann who has a hilarious cameo as the camp parson. Robert Yeoman's camerawork is magnificent. Shot in 16mm, the compositions are faded and slightly less crisp, providing a hazy, distanced quality to the whole film. Additionally, some hand held shots in the woods are a welcome addition to Anderson’s normally non-improvisational visual storytelling.

This is a film about depressed people. Although I wouldn't call it a dark film, these characters certainly have issues. Sam is an orphan whose foster parents no longer want him; Suzy has a violent streak and cannot connect with her parents; Suzy’s mom is having an affair; Suzy’s dad is apathetic; the camp counselor is caught between careers and his perfectionism does not allow for mistakes, but instead allows for eternal dissatisfaction. Yes Anderson wants us to laugh, but as in most of Anderson's films, there is always a desperate need to find solace. I always find his films to be far more emotionally involving than it appears that they should be, considering the somewhat whimsical visual approach and the comedy. 

There is a question one could pose about the film and that is whether we are supposed to take Sam’s and Suzy’s relationship seriously. Are we supposed to laugh at them? Or are we laughing with them? Or are we supposed to view them with fondness and sincerity? It is of my opinion that the film treats their relationship with a good deal of sincerity. This relationship they share is their world and that’s all they know. They know what is here and now and no one else can talk them out of it. Don’t get me wrong…their story is funny and amusing and rather sweet. But, when he wrote this story, Anderson was inspired by the time in his life when he fell in love at the age of 11.  Do we not hold our first crushes in some sort of reverential manner? Were the feelings at that age not intense and sincere? Yes we’re awkward at age 12….but do we ever become less awkward toward love? We might appear smoother as we get older, but falling in love can reduce people to being 12 years old all over again. This film captures that feeling……of discovery, of feelings previously unknown, and the joy of finding solace in the comfort of another. 


Sam Juliano said...

Beautifully written Jon! I do think that Anderson takes a fleeting look at first love and coming-of-age (heck, I asked myself why they found Sam and Suzy so quickly) and imparts his usual wry humor with the typical satiric underpinnings that are deftly woven into this (yes dense!) story. It's as stylish as anything the director has done, and I completely agree with the deft weaving of comedic and melancholic elements. The employment of Benjamin Britten's music is a stroke of brilliance and the cast is fully engaging. I do think that Norton may have been miscast, but no harm really done. As always, Anderson disarms his audience while taking a far more serious and trenchant look at human nature.

Great to hear you rate this among the director's best Jon! And really, another fabulous probing review at FILMS WORTH WATCHING!

Jon said...

Hey Sam! Your tireless support is always energizing. I was definitely moved by the choice of music in the film and it maybe Anderson's most inspired use of score in a film. Rushmore had some great pop tracks incorporated but this is on another level. I actually really liked Norton and thought he was a good fit. Actually I was wondering whether Harvey Keitel was not utilized here. However, Anderson tends to work with archetypes...or people who bring the persona inherently. Thanks Sam!

Ksenia said...

Great review! I absolutely loved the movie and just reviewed it as well.

Judy said...

I agree with you that Bruce Willis is possibly the best one in the movie, and I thought Ed Norton was great too... but must say I found the film probably the weakest of all the Wes Andersons I've seen. I didn't think it was a patch on 'The Darjeeling Limited' or 'The Life Aquatic', partly because so much of it had to be carried by the child actors. The period setting is beautifully done, though I don't remember everything being as pristine in the 1960s as it looks in the movie! Really enjoyed your piece, Jon, and I may be tempted to give the film a second look. :)

Jon said...

Thanks for stopping by!

Jon said...


Interesting thoughts. For me I rank the films like this:

The Royal Tenenbaums
Moonrise Kingdom
The Life Aquatic
Bottle Rocket
The Darjeeling Limited
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

However, I put the dividing line after The Life Aquatic as I think there is a step down with the final three. I admit I am not a big fan of Darjeeling and found it rather straining for effect. I felt like Moonrise was a return to form of the top two films. I thought it was more focused as well. I think the child actors are just that. They are children and they are actors. They don't completely disappear or feel totally comfortable with what they're doing. But I felt like it gave me more insight into being 12. I liked that they weren't so polished. It felt more real to me and awkward if that makes any sense.