by Raj Ranade
The fussiness is what people love, or love to hate, about the movies of director Wes Anderson: the immaculate retro tailoring, the clockwork regularity of arch one-liners, the precise camera dollies over even more precisely ornamented sets. And Anderson’s latest movie Moonrise Kingdom outdoes all of his films except 2009’s stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox for obsessive compulsive design, from the coonskin cap on its adolescent hero down to the aggressively plaid pants on Bill Murray. (You get the sense that Anderson would use Murray’s body as a stop-motion puppet too if he could.) But there’s something new in both Fox and Kingdom, something that makes them Anderson’s best films yet – the dollhouse worlds that Anderson has devised are as cutesy as ever, but he also seems newly willing to smash his own creations to pieces.
Anderson’s earlier movies (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited) are all considerably charming, but there’s a nagging tension in them between the fussiness of their style and the messiness of all those human emotions. (Suicidal tendencies mesh weirdly with elaborate art direction.) In Moonrise Kingdom, that tension is in part the subject of the movie. The film’s fictional New England island is an ideal of storybook lovers, youthful optimism, and intricate production design, and the storm that ultimately shows up to wreak havoc isn’t just the film’s literal hurricane but all of the adult world’s regrets, resentments, and tacky dining table centerpieces. Watching it, you sense that Anderson is perfectly aware of reality’s sourness, but also determined to fight against it by creating some dreamy, absurdly fanciful beauty. It’s a moving effort, which sets up a funny paradox – the more fake Anderson’s movies get, the more real the emotions behind them feel.
Of course, the fakery here is charming enough that you’d be forgiven for asking what’s so great about realness anyway. The film centers on Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), two prepubescent pen pals turned lovers. He’s a hapless Charlie Brown type, endlessly determined but shunned by the peers in his Khaki Scout troop; she’s his little red-haired girl with a moody streak (there’s a dog named Snoopy in the film too, though his fate is decidedly less Schulz-ian). He flees his summer-camp pup-tent to run away with her, setting his scoutmaster (Edward Norton), her parents (Murray and Frances McDormand), and the island’s police chief (Bruce Willis) on a frenzied manhunt.
This fine set of actors makes for a marvelous collection of walking neuroses. Murray is great playing against type here as a high-strung lawyer who suspects (correctly) that his wife may be cheating on him. (His only stress outlet appears to be late-night drunken lumberjacking). Willis is the man secretly after his wife, although her hesitance about the affair leaves him in a sustained state of melancholy (and Willis here shows an honest-to-god vulnerability that I wouldn’t have thought this quintessential tough guy to be capable of). And Norton is a scoutmaster in existential crisis – a man who loves being scoutmaster but happens to be fairly terrible at it.
With role models like these, the kids understandably have issues of their own – their love seems fueled as much by their shared demons as anything else. (Anderson’s always willing to go darker than his superficial Sundance-y imitators – it’s worth noting that Kingdom references Rear Window and Vertigo about as openly as it does Peanuts). But for now, they’ve got the naivete to think that their love will survive through the deluge of adulthood that waits them, like the heroes of the Noah’s Ark play staged by the local church choir.
There’s a lovely moment that occurs at a makeshift beach hideout, after the two have performed an impromptu dance number to a French pop song and Anderson has pulled off a cleverly symbolic bit involving a gifted pair of handmade, barbed fish-hook earrings. Suzy remarks to Sam that she wishes she was an orphan like him, and the boy replies with a statement beginning with a phrase he’s never told her: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” There’s pain and bitterness in the way he says that, and no doubt Suzy will realize that some day. But for now, she tunes it out, settles for joy, and says “I love you too.” In a bitter world, as Anderson can no doubt attest to, you find things to hold on to while you can.