Thursday, July 26, 2012

Caitlin's Review of Moonrise Kingdom

Ride on into Sunset
by Caitlin Murphy

It’s a testament to the iconic quality of Wes Anderson’s work that any filmmaker who even touches dysfunctional families, precocious children, or pasty, ineffectual adults, risks courting comparison.  Anderson’s got a patent on a particular brand of quirk, and he never strays too far from his bread and butter.  Though Moonrise Kingdom fits snugly in his library, it doesn’t quite earn its keep.

Set on a New England island in 1965, an orphan boy, Sam (the impossibly charming Jared Gilman), falls in love with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who, given her absentee parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), might as well be an orphan too.  The lovebirds concoct a plan to run away together, and the rest of Moonrise Kingdom involves the adults search to find (or – in Anderson’s world, of course – trap) them.

Another of Anderson’s signatures is his love of aesthetics.  He cinematically luxuriates in the material minutiae of given eras or environments.   And he does it well.  It’s an attention to detail that gives his films their texture and specificity –  the red, woollen toque in The Life Aquatic, the family-worn Adidas running suits in The Royal Tanenbaums, the private school uniforms in Rushmore – and it’s also what gives them their hyper self-conscious, ironic stance.  In Moonrise Kingdom Anderson’s playgrounds are the boy scouts, the mid-sixties, island living, and young love.  He treats his subjects lovingly, and a little vampirically too.      

Often Anderson’s use of synecdoche works.  Little bits do indeed gesture to brighter pictures and bigger truths.  But sometimes the shorthand’s just a bit too short – Suzy’s lawyer parents, for instance, refer to each other as counsellor, and you get the impression Anderson hoped that tidbit would go pretty far.  In short, I felt left responsible for far too much of the character development.  And even if we’re to understand that adults simply are sad ciphers in the eyes of children, in that case, the film’s not focalized specifically enough through the children’s perspectives to make this fly. 

I was actually very tickled by several moments in Moonrise Kingdom and even laughed out loud – but perhaps tellingly, this happened most during the film’s brilliant opening sequence; as time wore on, these charms wore off.  And I started suspecting that the larger pay-offs sought in a well-crafted narrative simply weren’t to be found.  Indeed, as the film reaches its climax, you increasingly feel the plot-making machine churning along.  Partly it’s intentional, of course – the film’s not really telling a story, but a story in quotation marks.  I was reminded of Anderson’s other film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which though it contained so many delightful elements, was ultimately a badly-paced film that felt awkwardly restrained.

Like Anderson’s camera that moves smoothly through rooms of the Bishop household, stopping briefly to capture a quirky tableau before moving on, there’s a drifting quality to Moonrise Kingdom that I don’t feel entirely works.  Yes, stories of devoted young love, and the die-hard convictions of children are always endearing, but the narrative tries to coast further on these than it should. 

 Casting wise, a couple of Anderson’s usual suspects appear, and a few novelty ones show up.  Edward Norton, whose cinematic presence feels less and less interesting these days, plays Scout Master Ward, a role that likely would have been better served by the earnest glow of Owen Wilson.  Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman’s performances register most as director’s calling cards; they deliver nothing new, perhaps signalling a collaborative that has gotten a little too familiar and therefore more than a little stale.

In some more surprising choices, Tilda Swinton appears as “Social Services” and Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce (the ‘big boss’ of the boy scout troupe), of course to provoke very meta-cinematic reactions, of the “Is that Harvey Keitel wearing a boy scout uniform?  Oh my god.  That’s such a zany choice” variety.  The most interesting bit of casting though is Bruce Willis as the bespectacled and lonely Captain Sharp, largely because he seems to actually have something to do.  You get the inkling of an actual stretch happening.

The tone of Anderson’s work – essentially deadpanning the outrageous – gets a little tedious sometimes, and smacks of...  Dare I say it.  Hipster.  That smug knowingness, removed from it all,  and impenetrable.  There are no stakes when everyone knows too much for their own good.  It’s sensitive comedic business treating trivial things too seriously and vice versa.   Often it hits, but the attempts wear out their welcome.  And when there’s not much else going on, I wander. 

Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s seen Moonrise Kingdom has loved it; so I’ve been feeling like a bit of an ass.  Ultimately, there’s tons to recommend the film, but it really hasn’t stayed with me.  I  just don’t think Anderson had enough to work with, or else suspect he’s getting a bit lazy about measuring out how much he needs.  

Or else maybe I’m just too much of a substance-over-style kind of girl, and no amount of delightful quirk can bury that.  

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