Thursday, August 23, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Audiences typically fall into two camps when it comes to Wes Anderson movies: you are either under his awkward spell or are baffled that anyone likes his stuff.  Both reactions are fair.  As much as I enjoy some of Anderson's work, I never recommend it to a friend without preparing them for oddness.  Personally, I find myself falling into neither category when it comes to Wes Anderson.  I used to really look forward to his movies --- the one-two punch of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums will do that --- but was disappointed by The Life Aquatic and had hoped for more from The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  If I had to categorize my attitude toward a new Wes Anderson film, I think "the novelty is running out" sums it up best.  It's a little strange, then, that I saw Moonrise Kingdom in the theater.  I was on a family vacation and we wanted to see something that would be appropriate for anyone from my mother to my thirteen-year-old cousin.  And we chose a Wes Anderson movie.
Yeah, it was an odd choice, I'll admit.  But the main characters are right around the age of thirteen.  Maybe this could appeal to the Twilight/Hunger Games generation.

…yeah, okay, probably not.

Moonrise Kingdom begins with Sam (Jared Gilman), a twelve-year-old Khaki Scout, running away from Summer camp in 1963, leaving behind only a letter of resignation.  Sam was the least-liked member of his troop thanks to his incurable oddness, but he was an excellent scout.  His scoutmaster (Edward Norton) can't find him and turns to the local police, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) for help. 
Keep your mouth open.  That helps you look for things.
This story takes place on an island, but that small area is apparently too large for these authority figures to track Sam down.  Meanwhile, Suzy (Kara Hayward) has vanished from her home, leaving her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three younger brothers behind without an explanation.  In fact, they wouldn't have noticed she was gone if she had not left a note explaining that she was borrowing her brother's record player for two weeks, without permission.  As Suzy's parents start to look for her and enlist Captain Sharp in their quest, it becomes apparent that the two kids have run away together.  And so begins an odd tale of tween romance amidst mediocrity.
They look so in love!

Since this is a Wes Anderson movie, discussing the acting is almost a moot point.  It’s not that they do a bad job, by any means, but Anderson has such a strong hand in directing his cast that their performances are always peculiar (to put it nicely).  The hardest thing about Moonrise Kingdom is that the lead characters are children.  I liked Kara Howard; her performance definitely reminded me of Irene Gogovaia (lil' Gwyneth Paltrow) in The Royal Tenenbaums, and that’s not a bad thing.  She was cold, distant, and not nearly as awkward as her male counterpart.  Jared Gilman wasn’t as good, but he was definitely awkward as hell, in the tradition of other Wes Anderson leading men.  The more I think about his performance, the more I like the little things; it's hard to put a finger on what he was doing right, but it probably has something to do with how well he deadpanned his lines. 
The classic look didn't hurt, either
I was glad to see Edward Norton having fun here.  It's been too long since he's been in a movie I've enjoyed, and he sure played up the sincerity of this character to a goofy degree.  Bruce Willis was decent.  I've never thought of him as a subtle actor --- "yippe ki-yay motherfucker" will do that to a reputation --- and I don't think he benefited from extra awkwardness.  He wasn't bad, though, and the moments where he seems most engaged (with Sam or through the CB radio) were pretty solid.  I was definitely disappointed by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, though.  I love both actors, but neither had enough time to shine; Murray's depressed character had some great moments ("That's not enough" was a great line) and McDormand's performance showed promise, but neither character was developed much in the final cutting.
I know how you feel, guys
The rest of the recognizable supporting cast was pretty good.  Harvey Keitel had a very bit part, and he was fun to watch.  Bob Balaban played the omniscient narrator, and I think his performance sums up Wes Anderson's direction; he was odd and awkward, making you either hate or love his scenes.  I enjoyed them.  Tilda Swinton --- whose bandwagon I haven't jumped onto just yet --- was very good as Social Services, and I think she would benefit from a larger role in another Anderson movie.  My favorite supporting character --- and an early leader for my annual "Best Bit Part" award --- was played by Jason Schwartzman.  It's not that his role was terribly difficult, but he had some of the film's best lines and delivery.  Plus, as an internet-ordained minister (because why not?), I love his willingness to marry people.
P.S.: Nice 'stache

The direction of Wes Anderson is hard for me to judge.  I love the effort he puts into his films (story, script, set design, supporting material, etc.), and Moonrise Kingdom has the same depth of experience that fans are used to.  All the book excerpts that Suzy reads?  Written by Wes.  You can also assume that any paintings or interesting fabrics you see in the movie were also made on his express direction.  I don't think anyone can fault Anderson for the effort he puts into his movies, even if they dislike his work.  Anderson works strangely with actors, though.  This is a slow movie, filled with many pauses and very few visible reactions.
Example of a typical Anderson reaction shot
Your opinion about the acting will probably formulate your opinion on the film as a whole.  If you like the tone and feel of other Wes Anderson movies, you will feel right at home in Moonrise Kingdom.  If you're unfamiliar with his work, just imagine silly things happening to people who don't understand levity, and that will give you a basic understanding of what the acting is like.  On the whole, I liked the acting and direction here, but it certainly is not for everyone.
If this doesn't make you smile, this film may not be for you

I should point out that this PG-13 movie is primarily rated that because of sexuality.  I thought it was kind cute and (very) awkwardly believable, but my wife was absolutely repelled by the incompetent sexual fondling that happened in a particular scene. 
Not surprisingly, it's the underwear dancing scene
It wasn't intended to be anything other than innocent and (maybe) realistic, but if you get uncomfortable when you see awkward sexuality, consider yourself warned.

Moonrise Kingdom is pretty enjoyable.  I thought the pre-teen romance was handled extremely well and there were a lot of fun moments from the elders in the cast.  Unfortunately, few of those elders had fully developed character arcs.  That wouldn't matter too much normally, but the script spends a lot of time on the adults in the cast, with only Willis and Norton appearing to find anything close to closure.  That is my main problem with this particular film.  There is a larger problem with this movie, though, and that is how similar Moonrise Kingdom is to the last few Wes Anderson movies.  The editing, storytelling, sets, title cards and acting are all unique among this year's crop of films, but they are nothing special when you compare them to Anderson's body of work.  I love that Anderson leaves such a personal touch on his films, but I'm getting tired of him using the exact same unusual style for each movie.  He is a clearly talented fellow, but needs to expand beyond the curious niche he's found if he hopes to continue developing as an artist.  I'm not saying that Wes Anderson needs to genre-hop like Woody Allen (although comparisons between the two are natural), but I hope his next effort is weird and awkward in a different way.

For the record, my thirteen-year-old cousin declared that Moonrise Kingdom was the worst movie she had ever seen.  And she's seen all the Twilight movies.

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