Subdued Enthusiasm for Moonrise Kingdom

19 06 2012

I bet Zooey Deschanel is a big Wes Anderson fan, what with the quirky fashion sense, constrained emotions, and ocassional requisite wink. Nearly as common in Anderson’s filmography is the absence of a clear antagonist in favor of characters who simply suck slightly more than others, so feel free to somehow connect all this to that New Girl show.

It’s the summer of 1965 in New Penzance as headstrong orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) abandons his Khaki Scout troop for an awkward teenage rendezvous with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), an outcast in her own right, who sneaks away from her dysfunctional parental units (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and their adorable dollhouse of a home. The pair abscond into the wilderness using Sam’s camping finesse and Suzy’s skills with a left-handed scissors to fashion a life free from the cruelty and judgment of the outside world. With the help of Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), New Penzance’s lone police officer, and Khaki Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), Mr. and Mrs. Bishop naturally pursue the intrepid, love-stricken twelve-year olds because honestly, they’re only twelve years old. Of course in keeping with being as Wes Andersony as a Wes Anderson film can be, this lovable band of eccentrics must learn to set aside its differences and evade a much larger threat, the gigantic coastal storm approaching the island.

If Moonrise Kingdom were its director’s first or second effort, I’d prescribe this as a classic case of style over substance. Alas, Anderson has always been more invested in how his films look and sound rather than in what they say. Anchoring the film’s story in between its impeccable staging are snippets of the fictional New Penzance’s geography, a helpful resource since the island only really exists in the hearts of wee babes. As per usual, Anderson’s soundtrack is fantastic even if one begins to wonder from which dank hipster pit he’s clearly mining these retro gems. The use of Benjamin Britten’s gothic, playful “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” is a particular highlight however I’d be remiss if I failed to mention my prior affinity for the piece and that its exposure here undoubtedly softens its coolness. You can still listen to my 8-track recording, though.

Unfortunately, Bill Murray is utterly wasted and may in fact be popping up in these films now simply because we’ve come to expect it. Norton, McDormand, and Willis on the other hand show they are plenty capable of playing in the director’s wry sandbox if only to prove that this is a story that doesn’t necessitate the presence of Owen Wilson’s weird nose. By far though, Moonrise Kingdom’s biggest accomplishment lies in emphasizing its two lead unknowns. Gilman and Hayward’s performances are a very, very rare victory for child actors everywhere, a triumph only heightened by their uncanny ability to flatly utter Anderson and Roman Coppola’s arrested dialogue with all the reservation of a cult regular like Jason Schwartzman.

As his filmography is wont to show, Anderson obsesses over diagnosing a community’s peccadilloes. But what often borders on self-parody actually shines in Moonrise Kingdom in no small part because of its focus on youthful naivete. At the same time there’s a recognition that the quaint sailboat of life relegates our desires to some place below its poop deck, the poop deck of responsibility. We have obligations to fulfill, regardless of how weird we seem or how many yellow lens filters one can cram into a single sequence. Come into Moonrise Kingdom with tempered expectations lest ye awaken the equally tempered wrath of Wes Anderson at his audience’s failure to contain its excitement. Instead, we must calmly exit the theatre and cast knowing winks to our significant others before driving home in beige Daewoos with the warm reassurance that our vintage button collections and Edith Piaf’s “La Foule” will be waiting when we get there.

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