Wednesday, June 6, 2012
It’s extremely difficult to describe with any feeling of accuracy just why Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t quite work. There are a number of rather fine elements at play, and the film’s second-half builds nicely to a rousing climax and a poignant finale, but the whole thing never coalesces into a cohesive statement.
Right from the start, Moonrise Kingdom lays the whimsy on thick, with its self-consciously composed vistas, off-putting narrative devices, and egregiously unusual characters. Some of these tricks have been used by Anderson to greater effect in other movies, specifically Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. But in the first-half especially, their usage in Moonrise Kingdom grates on the nerve.
The film begins by introducing us to the worlds of its two pre-pubescent protagonists. Suzy Bishop (Kara Heyward) is the troubled daughter of a loveless marriage between too dispassionate attorneys. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is an orphan who has been rejected from several foster homes for unpredictable behavior. A chance meeting during Sam’s scout troop outing leads to the two becoming pen pals, and they plan their getaway through this correspondence. Moonrise Kingdom follows their escape and its aftershocks, as the Bishop family, the local police chief Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Sam’s scout troop (led by a khaki-shorts wearing Edward Norton) take up the search.
The sense one gets during this initial build-up is that the on-screen action should be a lot less affected and a lot more involving. The main problem seems to be that everyone on-screen seems to know that they are in a Wes Anderson movie and that things are probably going to work out mostly alright. Norton and Willis are essentially used as sight gags instead of characters, as though the very idea of these two accomplished stars as down-and-out sad sacks was funny enough on its own. Bill Murray is also criminally wasted as Suzy’s father, who has very little to do except discover his wife’s affair with Captain Sharp.
Though occasionally the script, written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, too blatantly puts big-picture thoughts into the mouths of its young characters, the duo deserve credit for writing such an unexpectedly moving love story between two very young kids. Of course, perhaps even more credit should go to first-time actors Jared Gilman and Kara Heyward, for absolutely inhabiting their characters and making their awkward first steps toward adulthood (at the same time they are retreating from the adults around them) so realistic and engaging.
The script is rather daring when it comes to the physical nature of the love affair between Suzy and Sam, but it never feels voyeuristic or perverse. It’s actually quite touching to watch these two characters discovering the likeness of their own soul in the body of another, and it’s thrilling to watch them fight against all the forces that would keep them apart.
Whenever the action returns to the adult world, or lets adults infringe upon the world of two Suzy and Sam have created, the difference in the film’s impact is jarring. None of the adult characters are as realistic as the children, and many of them seem to act in entirely incomprehensible fashion, purely out of a desire to help Anderson move the plot along to where he needs it to go. Jason Schwartzman shows up to play a particularly unlikely role in Suzy and Sam’s adventures, and Tilda Swinton is reduced to a one-note joke about her character being a nameless functionary of an indifferent state government. (Though her character is memorable only for not having a name, it is worth mentioning that the other adult characters were so forgettable I had to look up all of their names just hours after seeing the film.)
Moonrise Kingdom is the kind of film that is better having been seen than seeing. In the rearview mirror one can look back and recall the charge that came from watching something that felt remarkably like true love, and conveniently forget the halting, awkward first steps that led up to it. For that reason, it is worth seeing. Just be aware of what you’re getting into.