Friday, June 15, 2012


Since his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson has carved out a thoroughly distinct thematicism in his films, an exploration of the hidden melancholy existing in the shadows of our visible selves.  Regret and weariness seem to cloak the figures in Anderson's work, unique individuals plagued by satisfactions they can't attain and haunted by memories of choices made poorly, cataloguing lifetimes of mistakes.  But while Anderson doesn't shy away from sorrow or the bitterness of romance, he is far from a pessimist, instead allowing the majority of his protagonists the opportunity to escape from the murk of their shadow selves and truly enter the rich, technicolor worlds their director painstakingly creates for them.  Whether it's Max Fischer's blossoming relationship with Margaret Yang at the end of Rushmore or Jack Whitman's painful decision to let go of the past in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson believes in hope and fosters a genuine affection for his characters.  That affection is given over to fully in his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, with expectantly gorgeous but somewhat frustrating results.
Like virtually all Anderson films, Moonrise Kingdom is the story of several outcasts attempting to trudge their way through a world that is too dull for them to properly thrive in, detailing their travails and difficulties in remaining true to themselves.  Set on the fictional island of Penzance, the narrative follows young orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman, evoking a prepubescent Max Fischer in both looks and intellect) as he exits the Khaki Scouts and takes off with his melancholy girlfriend Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) to establish a private existence in the hidden recesses of the wilderness.  A tangle of concerned adults get caught up in the search, among them the lonely scout master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), local policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis, doing excellent work), and Suzy's estranged parents Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand.)  As Moonrise Kingdom progresses, it becomes clear the film isn't about the search for the missing kids but rather a large scale search for self within all of the characters.  Anderson parades a multitude of motivations and anxieties out on the screen, especially among the adults, and he offers all of them some sort of personal answer by film's end, making this one of his most warmly satisfactory works in some time.
The whole thing reads very cute.  Anderson's detractors will no doubt find it "twee" and accuse the director of his trademark high stylization trying to mask an arrogant precociousness, but Moonrise Kingdom is, at its heart, nothing if not sincere in its approximation of the poignant sting of adolescent love.  Watching Sam and Suzy grow close and discover the excitement and breathless wanting burning between them is one of the film's most delightful plot points, and Anderson assembles it in all its true beauty and awkwardness.  The scene at the beach where Sam and Suzy dance together and fall into a kiss is both touching and hilarious, perhaps one of the most perfect demonstrations of Anderson's love for his characters in his entire oeuvre.  I won't detail it lest I ruin one of the film's best moments, but suffice to say it's a clear illustration of Anderson's belief in the necessity of distinct self-definition.  Sam, like so many Anderson protagonists before, has a very clear and developed idea of exactly who he is-even Captain Sharp says so in a later scene meant to compare and contrast the idealism of youth with the twilight hindsight of adulthood-and it's this wanton, willful iconclasm that marks him as a target by so many of his peers.  Suzy too exists outside of the lines, virtually invisible to her family (her parents practically living the chasmic distance between them on two floors of their house) and tormented by a fiery temper given to extremely intense outburts; her volatile nature imbues Moonrise Kingdom with a level of violence thus far unseen in any Anderson work (when Suzy stabs a boy with a pair of scissors, we see the graphic result along with some heartbreaking collateral damage.)  Together Sam and Suzy make sense in the way that only two misfits can, understanding each other and supporting one another with their quirks and imbalances.  One stabilizes the other, and their bond is deep, immediate, and eternal.  This element of the tragic certainly isn't lost on Anderson, as Moonrise Kingdom is essentially a series of increasingly powerful threats against the couple's love.  That their relationship withstands those trials is testament to Anderson's desire to consistently see the world with innocence and wonder.  Sadness and darkness intrude, but imagination and self-knowledge protect against them.
That lack of self-knowledge is what makes the adults in Moonrise Kingdom such troubled figures.  All of them are lost, scrambling and searching for that thing that defines them, makes them whole, makes them real.  Randy Ward doesn't know whether to paint himself as a scout master or a math teacher (his paying job): this dichotomy of not being able to truly do what he loves versus what he must to comfortably survive creates an emptiness in him that yearns to be filled.  Anderson believes in risks and chances, of going out on a limb for everything you want, and Ward can't summon the strength.  Compared to Sam, Ward seems the lost child, alone in the wilderness of the world, screaming in the night.  Captain Sharp is haunted by a different sort of emptiness, a crippling loneliness seeking out connection in doomed affairs and living out its days on an equally lonely houseboat afloat at the edge of the island.  Sharp throws himself into a distanced illicit romance with Laura Bishop and allows it to enervate him inside and out; what he perceives as love and the adult communication between two equals is really just one person using another.  Laura, for her part, struggles with boredom and the seeming inevitability of falling out of love, while her husband Walt seems content to exist in a sleepwalking stupor, obsessed with chopping wood and showing up with mysteriously blackened eyes.  Whether Laura and Walt's marriage is an abusive one is somewhat unclear, but what is perfectly visible is the suffocating sorrow existing over their brilliantly colorful home-when Laura tells Walt to stop feeling sorry for himself and Walt simple asks, "Why?", the sense of ache and yearning is so profound it's almost unbearable.  Anderson is a master at this sort of existentialism, and here what could have been a tossed-off retort becomes weighty with poignancy.
As always, Anderson's visual aesthetic is dense, layered, and clearly indentifiable.  It's obvious why his set dressers and designers receive top billing in the end credits-every frame is packed with visual cornucopia, whether it's the lush, elegiac autumnal colors of the island's flora, the interiors of a house (shown in the trademark Anderson dolly shot), or the patterning on a sweater or suitcase.  Anderson loves to fixate on specific objects: here it's a portable record player, a menagerie of young adult fantasy/sci-fi novels, and a brooch cleverly disguised as a merit badge.  Moonrise Kingdom is an intricately created microcosm, one that Anderson obviously knows as reality, and it is a sheer joy to watch his vision brought to life.  The off-putting aspect to this film may be Anderson's choice to shoot on 16mm film, which lends the work a grainy, unfocused quality in the wider shots.  My girlfriend equated it to watching a home movie, and while I understand and admire why Anderson shot the film this way, I can't help but wonder how much more lovely the film could have been had it been shot digitally, or even on faster film stock.  You quickly get used to it, though, and what's truly gorgeous isn't necessarily Anderson's shots but his always superlative use of color.  Everything is bright, crisp, extreme, and unexpected, showcasing the director's true flair for staging and packing the frame with worthwhile minutiae.  The post-production work on this film must have been insane, but the results were well worth it.  Moonrise Kingdom feels visceral and alive in the same way as Sam's paintings and Suzy's beloved fantasy book covers-they're the unreal wrought into being, the magic brought to life.  Anderson gives us access to the wonder.
For all its tremendous successes, though, Moonrise Kingdom ultimately suffers from Anderson's desire to cram too much into a small amount of time.  The first half of the film, detailing Sam and Suzy's escape and the adults' hunt for them, is fantastic and engaging, creating a world of unique characters and circumstances that all interact briefly and evocatively.  It would have made for a perfect short piece, much in the same way as Hotel Chevalier (which i still consider to be Anderson's finest work).  After the escapees are found, the film begins to lag.  None of the ancillary characters, especially the adults, seem well-drawn enough (even Sam feels a bit like a regurgitation of Max Fischer), and all of them spend the good majority of their time floundering around, waiting for salvation at Anderson's benevolent hand.  When it comes, it almost feels unearned.  Walt and Laura are the worst example, and it saddens me to think that Anderson wasted the powerhouse talents of Murray and McDormand.  Both are fine here and work with what they're given (especially Murray, who brings a sadness to Walt that's defined his work with Anderson through multiple films) but the fact is, they're given very little to do or say and even less room to grow or change.  Captain Sharp, played with an uncharacteristic tenderness and vulnerability by Bruce Willis, fares better but ultimately succumbs to the same purgatorical fate-the things that happen to him in the film surely change his life, but they come too fast, almost unexpectedly, and the decisions he makes seem almost haphazard rather than a natural extension of his character.  Anderson gives Ward a slightly larger palette, but his summation too feels quick and obvious.  I won't speak much of Tilda Swinton's Social Services representative, other than saying Anderson totally squandered one of the finest modern actresses in a role that could have been handled by a first year acting student.
If you can look beyond those very minor flaws (they more or less evaporate in the wake of the film's overall beauty and heartfelt sincerity), then Moonrise Kingdom is an incredibly rich and rewarding film bursting with its director's impish wit and near-faultless visual design.  All of the deadpan mock seriousness is there in abundance, where every line feels like an epic philosophical profundity and every minor interaction between characters seems infused with years of repressed longing and sorrow.  It's nice to see Anderson working with his favorite themes again-much as I loved The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the fantasy of it precipitated a certain amount of distance between viewer and material.  Here Anderson aims his bow straight for the heart and sinks his arrow deep, turning in a film that echoes the considerable awkwardness existent in every stage of life, as well as our constant need to define ourselves in hopes of deriving meaning from our lives.  Characters like Sam get it-we are whoever we want to be, and fuck everyone else if they can't accept it.  Moonrise Kingdom is a map to the inlet of iconcoclasm, and Wes Anderson's hope for the triumph of individuality and decency in the face of a society caught up in its own misery.

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