MOONRISE KINGDOM (Wes Anderson)
By Robert Koehler
“Why,” asked a skeptical-sounding Chinese TV journalist with an assertive microphone of those exiting the Wednesday afternoon press screening of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, “is Moonrise Kingdom the opening film of Cannes?” To which one could only respond, “Why not?” I thought back on my impassioned support for the decision to program Anderson’s previous and best film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as opening night film of AFI Fest in 2009, and realized, as the microphone inched closer to my face, that Anderson’s cinema contains a peculiar mix that makes it an ideal opening night vehicle. There’s a kind of absolute auteurism, a hyper-aggressive formalism, an insistence on the camera’s view as a proscenium arch inside of which an entirely theatrical universe is created, alongside a lightness, a preference for melancholy swathed in the scent of vanilla, sadness as a weekend romp, the melodramas of parents and the children they don’t understand as storybook fantasies.
Unlike the wily, crafty Mr. Fox, Anderson’s heroes this time are children on the cusp of teenhood in 1965, an interesting time to become a teen and a time when color films had an odd sheen to them, with the color sometimes draining out of them on contact. That’s the look here—the film was shot on Super 16mm and then transferred to digital—and it oddly helps the film from feeling nostalgic. The opening minutes, for that matter, the opening 40 minutes, are fairly divine, as Anderson and Roman Coppola’s screenplay relates an escape into the wilderness by Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman), both deemed disturbed and unmanageable by those adults who supposedly care for them. In the movie’s most experimental and dangerous tack, Hayward and Gilman—who share a large amount of screen time together—are deliberately directed to perform awkwardly, verbally flat, their sheer botchedness designed to become an expression of pre-teen discomfort. The strategy works. Their flight is told both in straight chronology and in a few extremely clever flashbacks—one of several signs in Moonrise that Anderson’s work as a director has been fundamentally altered by making Mr. Fox—but above all, as a lunchbox/storybook/Capt. Kangaroo version of Tristan und Isolde without the liebestod. Most of the adults, as usual with Anderson (Mr. Fox being a striking and moving exception), are idiots: Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents pose as authority figures but they’re just sticks, Edward Norton as a Scoutmaster for the Khaki Scouts of America’s Camp Ivanhoe tries to be a general in charge but he’s worse than one of Lincoln’s commanders, and Tilda Swinton showing up as a child services official is nothing but hot air. Bruce Willis, as the top cop for the story’s New England island setting, at least is seriously trying to find the runaways, while carrying on an affair with McDormand. And Bob Balaban, in the movie’s best performance, delivers direct-address backgrounders on the nature and history of the island, and knows of the devastating storm about to hit the place.
Anderson doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone, and piles it on in the second half, until Moonrise Kingdom loses much of its mirthful charm. Its storybook pages get gummed and marked with a pile-on of business, rivalries within rivalries within rivalries, Hurricane Harvey Keitel making an entrance (even Coppola’s relation Jason Schwartzman, in a fairly pointless turn), the flood stirred by the storm and, for good measure, Benjamin Britten’s own operatic version of Noah and the Great Flood. What was gliding along is now stomping along, and there’s the itch to want to make it all stop, or at least, calm back down to what it was. It’s one thing to have Britten, in his classic Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra (used as a leitmotif here), adding on an instrument at a time until you have the fully rounded orchestra; it’s another to add on to something that’s already complete, as the early phases of Moonrise Kingdom are.