At this point in his career, the most common criticism you’ll hear about Wes Anderson is that he’s become a parody of himself.
With the too-bizarre-too-take-seriously “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and the underwhelming “Darjeeling Limited” (the adorably kitschy stop-motion menagerie “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” notwithstanding), it’s a hard argument to refute. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. For if there’s one modern auteur whose trademark style is so distinct and artful that it occupies a grandiose world of its own, it’s Wes Anderson. For better or for worse, there’s one thing you can count on with a Wes Anderson film: That it’s going to be a Wes Anderson film. But whether or not that’s a good thing is all a matter of taste.
With his latest feature, “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson doesn’t abandon his style or quirk, obviously, but instead, plays it to the favor of the story and setting, thus creating a profoundly moving and delightful narrative that contrasts young, adolescent love with adulthood.
Set in 1965 on the fictional New England island of New Penzance, the film opens with a trademark Anderson tracking shot of a family in their quiet but compartmental New England house. A familiar shot (like that of the submarine in “The Life Aquatic,” or the Tenanbaum mansion in “The Royal Tenenbaums”), that seemingly reduces his characters to players in an elaborately kitschy dollhouse. But that’s exactly what Anderson’s films are: Quirky players in an elaborate dollhouse story.
That house, by the way, is called ‘Summer’s End’ and appropriately titled waterside-cottage occupied by the Bishop family — the classically sour and self-deprecating Bill Murray as Walt Bishop, Frances McDormand as his neurotic and adulterating wife, Laura, their three young boys, and finally Suzy Bishop. Wearing floral mini-skirts and heavy eyeshadow (much like Gwyneth Paltrow’s aesthetic in “The Royal Tenenbaums”), Suzy is the black sheep of the family; misunderstood by her parents and prone to violent outbursts amongst her peers. Though, Suzy’s one solace in her life is the kinship she’s sparked with the tenacious and similarly misunderstood orpha, Sam Shakusky.
As the film’s nameless narrator (Bob Balaban) informs us, Sam — a dedicated member of the Khaki Scouts of North America — met Suzy one year earlier, and after a year of developing a deep bond as two misunderstood outcasts, they make plans to run away and be together. When Sam’s Khaki Scout Master Randy Ward (amusingly played by Edward Norton) and Suzy’s family discover their disappearance, Anderson ensembles a colorful cast of quirky supporting characters to track them down and bring them back to their respective homes (though in the case of Sam, his non-home is a juvenile center for delinquent orphans).
“Moonrise Kingdom” is perhaps Wes Anderson’s best film since his Academy Award-nominated “The Royal Tenenbaums”.
With its 1960’s setting, Anderson’s palette of pastiche and kitschy aesthetic perfectly captures the tone of fetishized love of a bygone era. But like the best of Anderson’s work, the film’s quirk only works because of how it tenderly handles its very human themes. In this case, the innocence of adolescence, excitement of first love and the disillusionment of adulthood.
Of course, the adventure — both physically and emotionally — that Sam and Suzy embark on is adorably endearing. Venturing out into the backwoods of New Penzance, Suzy, armed with her arsenal of her favorite fantastical novels, a pair of left-handed scissors, and her trusty binoculars, and Sam — packing Khaki Scout survival gear (and a corncob pipe that he likes to unwind with, for quirk’s sake), the sweetly naive courtship that evolves between them hits all the right notes with young love.
But what really makes the film work thematically is how the depiction of young love contrasts with the seasoned disillusionment of the film’s tragic adult players.
Accompanying Murray, Norton, and McDormand, are Bruce Willis as the island’s police chief Captain Sharp, Tilda Swinton as the Social Services worker aptly referred to as “Social Services” throughout the film, and Jason Schwartzman as the hard-headed cousin of one of Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts.
With stellar performances all around (particularly in Norton and Willis who magnificently showcase their range as actors), the soured and sad depictions of the lives (failed marriages, loneliness, and delusions of grandeur are aloft) of the adult characters give the film depth and real character, and, ultimately, only serve to root for — and fall in love with — Sam and Suzy’s relationship.
For the first two-thirds, “Moonrise Kingdom” is as close to perfection as a Wes Anderson film has come. It’s only until the film’s final act that introduces a brooding and destructive storm that threatens the safety of our young protagonists that “Moonrise Kingdom” teeters into uneven territory, but even then we’ve already been so charmed that it’s acceptable.
With his deadpan, matter-of-fact dialogue, colorfully offbeat characters, and twee lens, Anderson’s style isn’t for everyone. But for those who do appreciate Anderson’s art, “Moonrise Kingdom” is a pleasurable and delightful chapter in Anderson’s canon. One that conveys its emotions as effectively as it paints its pastiche portrait.
Though it’s shaping up to be the arthouse hit of the summer, Anderson naysayers won’t be swayed by “Moonrise Kingdom”, but that’s okay; they can stay outside while the rest of us gleefully play in his wonderfully elaborate dollhouse.
Overall Grade: A-[divider]
“Moonrise Kingdom” is now playing in select theaters, click here for theaters and showtimes.