Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Brother Wes Built the Ark: Moonrise Kingdom

Given that Moonrise Kingdom unfolds under the metaphorical shadow of a literal oncoming storm, it's only fitting that the two main characters in this childhood romance should meet at a children's opera about Noah and the great flood. After walking out of the church where Noye's Fludde is being performed, past the pint-sized brightly costumed actors standing outside waiting to take the stage two-by-two, Sam discovers Suzy seated at a makeup mirror, dressed as a raven, and it's essentially love at first sight. But Noye's Fludde does more than just provide the setting for some symbolic meet-cute, or keep alive writer/director Wes Anderson's habit of staging (elaborately homespun) plays within plays. It also evokes Anderson's modus operandi. From his trademark cross-section sets, to his predilection for nostalgia-inducing trinkets, to his habit of suggesting character through distinctive costumes, what are Anderson's films if not giant arks for collecting, organizing and preserving various species (and artifacts) while providing them with sanctuary from the storm?

Whether that reading sheds new light on Anderson's body of work or merely confirms your previous view of one of the few modern filmmakers who lives up to the "auteur" label is of course up to you. But it seems to me that thinking of Anderson as a collector and preservationist — and I don't mean to imply I'm the first person to come up with that analysis — deflates the common criticism that suggests Anderson is stuck in a fantasy world of bygone nostalgia. There's nothing "stuck" about it. Anderson goes there eagerly, consciously, purposefully, like a historian goes into the past, because he continues to find significance there. No doubt, it would be interesting to see what an Anderson film would look like if he left the ark. No doubt, his idiosyncratic interests and cinematic approach keep him a niche artist in the meantime. (No doubt, the consistency of Anderson's films makes him a bit of a challenge to write about without retracing well-worn critical analyses or foolishly ignoring Anderson's signature flourishes.) But in the end all that matters is this: Anderson continues to find universal truths in his hermetically sealed world.

Moonrise Kingdom, cowritten by Roman Coppola, might be Anderson's most accessible film. His earlier works are dominated by adults acting like children, but here the main characters are kids trying to act like adults. For audiences who struggle to adapt to the peculiar rhythms of Andersonville, this beat might be easier to dance to, and yet Moonrise Kingdom is consistent with the rest of Anderson's oeuvre, which is dominated by the search for self-identity. From protagonists to supporting players, Anderson characters are frequently mired in quests — whether they're aware of them or not — to live up to their own idealized visions of themselves. For the most part, Anderson's characters are playing characters, which helps to explain all those paper-doll costumes; in Anderson's movies, life is one big elaborate game of dress-up. If from afar that might seem cynical, as if Anderson is implying that we're nothing more than imposters, void of any true self, in actuality Anderson's films are overflowing with sympathy, as if he sees no greater challenge than figuring out where one belongs.

Perhaps what's so uplifting about Sam and Suzy then is that we enter their lives with their emotional aimlessness behind them. The scars are still there, chiefly exhibited by their mutual understanding that they are, despite their best intentions, problem children. But we get to watch as Sam and Suzy come together with a purity of confidence that Anderson hints can only be found in youth — an idea consistent with his previous films. In contrast to the young runaways, the adults in Moonrise Kingdom are bitter, lost or insecure, and as a result they wind up clinging tightly to their professional identities, because it's the only part of themselves that they can easily define. (Or maybe not so easily: In one scene Edward Norton's Scout Master Ward is asked what he does for a living. Math teacher, he says, but then he quickly corrects the record: scout master first — math teacher on the side. On the other end of the scale, Tilda Swinton's character is so void of self identity that she goes by the name of the institution she represents: Social Services.)

It could go without saying that, in addition to the signature characteristics I've already mentioned, Moonrise Kingdom comes complete with Anderson's from-above compositions, his centered framing, a slo-mo scene, lots of deadpan dialogue and more. Undeniably, these flourishes are core components of what a Wes Anderson movie is, at least at this point in time. But Anderson's movies distinguish themselves through more than just style — a truth that is made clear in the few instances in which Anderson proves willing to ape other filmmakers. Case in point: Sam and Suzy's runaway has a lot in common with Terrence Malick's Badlands — namely a whimsical score (this one by Alexandre Desplat), a half-dressed dance in the wilderness and lovebirds on the run to someplace specific and anywhere at all — but beyond a vague suggestion that nature is a magical place to spend some time, Moonrise Kingdom never feels remotely Malickian, because the spirit of Anderson's filmmaking remains his own even in the rare instances when the trappings feel borrowed.

For my money, Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson's second strongest film (after The Royal Tenenbaums). It doesn't all work for me: Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp is hit-or-miss; the shoe-throwing fit from Walt Bishop (Bill Murray) feels forced; and as much as I've tried to convince myself that the cartoonish silhouette of three characters clinging to one another in the moonlight hits the right note, well, it's still a visual clank for me. But such quibbles are offset by every moment with Sam (an awesome Jared Gilman) and Suzy (an equally awesome Kara Hayward), and by Anderson's knack for leveling me with uppercuts of emotion when my defenses are down — such as when a proud scout master praises the excellence of his troubled scout's pitch camp, or when a mother and daughter discover honesty by the bathtub, or when a small boat comes ashore in the early morning darkness as the story's narrator stands in the foreground forewarning us about the coming storm. From the island of New Penzance, where Moonrise Kingdom takes place, to the ark in which all of Anderson's cinematic creations live, Anderson operates in a world just beyond this one. The air is different there. Lighter. Sweeter. With a whiff of melancholy. I can't imagine he'll ever leave this place, or that I'll want him to.


JP said...

The Noah's Ark theme is something I hadn't noticed until you mentioned it and it seems quite apt. Nice observation.

Feel free to check my Moonrise Kingdom review here >

I found your review very insightful so I've added your blog to my blog list.


Adam Zanzie said...

Your review reminded me of the other "plays-within-plays" in two of Anderson's other films -- Serpico in Rushmore, the "not believable" children's play in Royal Tenenbaums -- that I've never forgotten, despite not being much of a fan of either of those two films. Up until Moonrise Kingdom I've always had respect for Anderson's work without fully connecting with any of it, yet it can't be denied that some of his sequences over time have made a lasting impression on my memory.

Moonrise Kingdom is by far his most accessible film, though. When the movie ended and I was washing my hands in the bathroom, a guy next to me remarked, "Good movie, huh?" I responded, "Oh, yes, it's great -- and I don't even care much for Wes Anderson." He nodded and replied, "I'd say it's his best."

I thought Willis was superb, which startled me, since he's done so many bad movies in the past decade and I was about ready to write him off as a burnout. The Academy might overlook him because he's so quiet in this role, but it's got to be the best he's been in years.

Craig said...

This is terrific:

But it seems to me that thinking of Anderson as a collector and preservationist — and I don't mean to imply I'm the first person to come up with that analysis — deflates the common criticism that suggests Anderson is stuck in a fantasy world of bygone nostalgia. There's nothing "stuck" about it. Anderson goes there eagerly, consciously, purposefully, like a historian goes into the past, because he continues to find significance there.

He certainly does in his best films, of which Moonrise Kingdom certainly qualifies. What I like about the fantasy of this movie is it's layered. The fictional books that Suzy reads, for example, add another level of meaning to the fictional story of her own. It's an immersive experience, yet I never got the sense that Anderson was nudging us to join in. His movie is as inviting and enveloping as the woods Sam and Suzy go hiking in, even though we're always reminded that this world is never completely benign.

Richard Bellamy said...

You're right on here. Not every moment works, but there is enough wonder here to make this a worthy addition to Anderson's films. Sam and Suzy are mostly responsible for making this film work as it dies. Beneath their timeless delivery, we feel a lot about them. I am especially touched by the character of Suzy, and Hayward plays her sensitively, evoking all the inward, misunderstood teenage girls with their noses stuck in books that transport them from life's hardships into worlds of wonder.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fellas: Thanks for the thoughts. A few back ...

Adam: I love me some Bruce Willis. He's sneaky good. In fact, I'm struggling to think of a 'poor' Willis performance. (In contrast, Kevin Costner is sneaky good, too, but he has plenty of poor performances to point to.) Anyway, with all of that, I figure I'd be the target audience for thinking that Willis is deserving of Oscar hardware for this. But, nope. Not even at his best in this movie does this strike me as an award-worthy performance. It's nicely written, but there's just not that much performance or under-performance to it. (Of course, if he gets a nomination, that's great. But I'd much rather see Edward Norton get that nod from this film.)

Craig: I read that Anderson originally conceived of cutting away to see animated versions of Suzy's storybooks. So glad he didn't do that. Watching Suzy hold those books and read them aloud make for some of the movie's best images. Memorable that way. Would be just a run-of-the-mill dream sequence (essentially) otherwise.

Hokahey: Agreed on Suzy, and the book reading scenes I just mentioned are indeed a great window into who she is. Lovely.

Mezzo Culture said...

I saw this film recently on a date and it was the first Wes Anderson film my girlfriend had seen besides "Fantastic Mr. Fox". I tell that story only to show I agree that this is his most accessible film, for the reason you specified. After I saw the film, I liked it, but almost didn't want to. I say that because, as you said, Anderson pulls nothing back from his style, it's all there. He embraces himself completely and I thought that was a bad thing.

Your explanation on how that was ok, as he is a preservationist of sorts, was a perfect way to formulate my thoughts on it.

My favorite thing about the film, though, was Edward Norton. As you said, the part where he compliments his skills is truly moving, as is the rest of Norton's performance.