Few filmmakers are as easily identifiable as Wes Anderson in terms of knowing their work when you see it. For some, he’s a constantly quirky delight, while for other’s his films are a struggle to sit through. I find myself usually somewhere in the middle, and that’s again where I find myself with his latest flick ‘Moonrise Kingdom’. As visually stimulating as anything he’s done, but as indifferently plotted, this is a perfect example of how Anderson the director and Anderson the writer (or co-writer, to be more precise) are pretty much two different people. For all the obvious care that he puts in behind the lens, he seems to just be writing for the sake of it, not really caring what the movie is going to actually be about, so long as it looks good. This is the core of my issues with Anderson. Now, he’s got a surprisingly compelling young love story at the center, but not enough time is spent there, leaving us instead with an A list supporting cast with too little to do, even if they all turn in good performances. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are both rather great and the film is at its best when they’re on the screen. Sadly, that’s not as often as it should be. Still this might be Anderson’s easiest film to digest in quite some time. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns into a surprisingly big hit and makes a play for a Best Picture nomination. I wouldn’t necessarily support it, but I can see it happening if a perfect storm of sorts occurs.
Set during the summer of 1969 on a small island off the coast of New England, the film is a whimsical tale of young and forbidden (is there any other kind?) love set against an impending storm, both of literal and figurative terms. Orphan and member of the Khaki Scout Troops of America Sam Shakusky (Gilman) is seen as an outcast and a troubled youth by all around him, mainly due to misunderstanding his intelligence. Suzy Bishop (Hayward) is also labeled as “troubled”, and when they first lock eyes, there’s an unspoken understanding. Soon, they’re writing letter over a year’s time and planning to run away together, which is where the story essentially takes off from. These two young lovebirds just want to be left alone in the woods, but they’re disappearances set off chaos on the island. Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), originally called on by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) to find Sam, now is tasked by Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) Bishop to find Suzy as well, a job made even more important due to the pseudo-affair he’s having with Laura. While Sharp is on the job, the other Khaki Scouts are looking as well, and with Sam’s foster parents uninterested in taking him back, the literal named Social Services (Tilda Swinton) is soon on the scene as well. Everyone is losing their mind, and when the storm hits the shore, everything comes together.
Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are the heart and soul of this flick. Anderson seems to know this, and it feels like there’s more effort on all levels with Sam and Suzy are having their adventure together. It helps that Gilman perfectly sells the awkward intelligence of his character and Hayward is somewhat heartbreaking as a girl on the verge of becoming a woman and dealing with all of the emotions that come with it, basically without the support of anyone else. Their moments together are great. Bill Murray is quietly convincing as a sad man who’s aware of his parental and marital failings, while Edward Norton and Bruce Willis play good men trying to do what’s right. Frances McDormand isn’t given much to do as Murray’s wife/Hayward’s mother, and Tilda Swinton is mostly wasted. As for the rest of the cast, it includes Bob Balaban as the narrator, Jason Schwartzman as an older Troop member, and Harvey Keitel as the head of the Scouts, but for my money this is all about Gilman and Hayward.
Wes Anderson paints a striking portrait visually here, but his script (co-written) by Roman Coppola fails the film too often to completely win me over. Anderson the director is about as meticulous and careful as anyone in the business, and it shows with a number of excellent shots, a tremendous set design, and a color palette that’s both unusual and perfectly fitting for the film. Anderson the writer, however, has a bare bones plot that he might as well be annoyed to be following up on. The disconnect between the two creates an uneven pace that has a 94 minute movie feel twice as long. Anderson and Coppola get a bunch of humorous moments, but oftentimes it all just feels too cute and self aware without having any depth (excluding the moments of Sam and Suzy together). It’s more satisfying than usual for the filmmaker, but it’s still rather flawed.
In terms of its awards chances, I could see SAG giving it an Ensemble nomination later on in the season, but Oscar might find it just a bit too cute for its liking. If the box office is big enough though, they might think otherwise and look to make this their obligatory “funny” nominee in Best Picture. I’m not expecting a nomination, but I wouldn’t completely discount it either. Just put that in the back of your mind for later…
‘Moonrise Kingdom’ will be a real treat if you’re a fan of Wes Anderson. If you don’t care for him, it’ll be very mellow torture. For me, it was an enjoyable but not completely satisfying experience. It turned out a bit better than I expected, but I still find Anderson to be in love with his own style and unable to craft a story worth the trouble. He did it once with ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and I remain somewhat hopeful that he’ll be able to do it again for me. Anderson came close with this flick, so if you’re of a similar mindset as I am, this is probably worth checking out. If you like him more than I do, you’re already on line to see it, I suspect. Regardless, it’s mostly a well made film and it goes down easy, so you won’t have a terrible time no matter who you are. Essentially, this is Wes Anderson doing “Wes Anderson” to a T. Make of that what you will…
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