Look, either you like Wes Anderson's thing or you don't. Over the last 14 years, he has established himself as a filmmaker that both enchants and frustrates audiences and critics in equal measure. His detractors see his films as precious, fussily schematic, mannered and monotone. His supporters praise them as inventive, heartfelt, gently comic and meticulously realized. I get both sides of the argument and have a hard time quibbling with either.
But putting aside his brief foray into stop-action animation with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, possibly my favorite of his films, Anderson's work seems to have grown more self-aware and fetishistic since The Royal Tenenbaums. In other words, more Wes Anderson-y.
Moonrise Kingdom is, in many ways, the ultimate distillation of both his cinematic strengths and narrative weaknesses, guaranteed to further validate the opinions of fans and disparagers alike, leaving folks like myself to straddle a middle ground where we're impressed by his talent but unmoved by his work. In many ways Anderson's latest effort is like an Instagram photo — a nostalgic snapshot that seems to be of different time and place but is really the twee affectation of a world that never existed.
A lyrical ode to pre-pubescent romance, Moonrise Kingdom introduces us to 12-year-olds Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop (first-timers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), a pair of "troubled" children who may just be the least screwed-up people on the fictional Maine island of New Penzance. It's the summer of 1965, when orphaned Sam escapes from his Khaki Scout camp in order to run away with brooding Suzy (young adult books, battery-operated record player and pet cat in tow) to a hidden idyllic cove. This ignites a panic among the dim and depressed adults who populate New Penzance. Lonely Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and melancholy police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) treat the kids' recovery as a sacred mission, going so far as to enlist a posse of overzealous scouts. Suzy's adulterous mom (Frances McDormand) and sad-sack dad (Bill Murray) bluster and fret, even as they remain clueless and incurious as to why their daughter decided to fly the coop.
Grown-ups act like kids, kids act like grown-ups, and what could have been an affecting tale of childhood alienation, autonomy and empowerment, becomes a movie preoccupied with extravagantly cluttered artificiality. Look and tone take precedence over intimacy and emotion — and as a result Sam and Suzy's painful pangs of growing up never affect us the way they should.
There's an undeniable sweetness about the children wrestling with adult-sized emotions, but Anderson plays everything so dogmatically blank-faced that their motivations are hard to parse.
Take Suzy, for instance. While Hayward's performance brings with it a steely-eyed intelligence and fluttering vulnerability, her interactions with Gilman are more perfunctory than revealing. It's hard to tell whether she's genuinely fallen for the precocious boy or is using him to get revenge on the parents who consider her a "problem child." It's clear she sees Sam as a kindred spirit, but even as Anderson goes through all the motions of establishing the kids' love, we never actually feel it.
This is the problem with his insistently deadpan approach, his vaguely formed leads exchange words and acts of affection but all their emotions must be inferred. I understand the advantage this approach affords Anderson, especially if he hopes to get consistent performances from his young and inexperienced actors. But it also eviscerates the kids of their authenticity. Prepubescent children have emotions, volatile emotions, and as depicted here they come across as stand-ins for adolescence rather than flesh-and-blood kids.
The adults fare worse. Murray, McDormand and Norton are joined by Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel. All are amusing but mostly wasted in their mannequin-like roles. Jason Schwartzman makes a cameo appearance and shows the A-listers how to not only deliver but own the sartorial quirk of Anderson's dialogue. Only Willis, however, registers as a real human being. Studiously underplaying his police chief role, he brings a resigned sadness to an otherwise on-the-nose character.
In the end, Moonrise Kingdom finds its successes in the things Anderson is known best for. His love of books, music, nature and placemaking objects fills nearly every frame. Though his graceful tracking shots have become hopelessly cliché, they still manage to impress. And his quiet affinity for damaged adults and kids who struggle to fit in creates an underlying tone of bittersweet dissatisfaction and disappointment. Moonrise Kingdom may not be a movie I'm ready to embrace, but I can't help but appreciate its determined and oddball earnestness. —Jeff Meyers
Opens Friday, June 15, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.