MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Focus Films, PG-13, 94 mins.
* * 1/2
Everyone keeps waiting for director Wes Anderson to make his masterpiece. He already has–Rushmore (1998). That explains why he’s been remaking it ever since. Just as surely as a Fox News broadcast will contain a screed against “Obamacare,” a Woody Allen film will center on a hopeless neurotic played by the director (or a surrogate), and a John Irving novel will contain a bear, Vienna, and wrestling, so do all Wes Anderson films have standard elements. These include:
· A main character (either a child or a perpetual adolescent) that is odd and misunderstood.
· A period of trial in which the protagonist is ridiculed and presumed mentally damaged.
· The revelation that the outcast is actually quirky, but brilliant.
· A central dilemma that children resolve by outwitting stupid adults. A host of secondary characters whose motives and behaviors are inexplicable and improbable.
· Bill Murray playing a droll but ineffectual character.
Some critics have hailed Moonrise Kingdom as the film we’ve been waiting for Anderson to make, but from where I sit there’s not reason to cast aside his unofficial nickname: “Mess” Anderson. Those who have been charmed by Moonrise Kingdom do have one point in their favor–it has a coherent narrative that carries us from start to finish rather than the helter-skelter randomness that made some of his other efforts feel like a Saturday Night Live sketch that got carried away. This time the setting is 1965 and we get two brilliant-but-misunderstood misfits, the pre-Goth Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and an orphaned geek scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman). Both kids are as out of place among their peers as Mormons in a beer tent, and each is either ignored by adults and peers or endlessly harassed by them. Naturally, they gravitate to each other.
The setting is an isolated New England island with few permanent residents, though Suzy’s family–three oblivious brothers and la-de-da parents played by Murray and Frances McDormand–is among them. Not much happens on an island with no paved roads and a smattering of adults only slightly brighter than fireflies, though everyone is smart enough to know that Laura Bishop (the frumpy McDormand) is having it off with Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the island’s dimwitted chief of police. The island’s only other excitement occurs in the summer, when it is inundated by Khaki Scouts holding their encampment there, and on several adjacent islands. Unbeknown to the adults–who never seem to know much of anything–Suzy and Sam have previously met and have, for a year, been plotting to run away with each other once Sam’s Khaki Scout encampment convenes. When Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and Walt Bishop (Murray) discover their charges are missing, they, the scouts, Sharp, and others set off to track them down before an impending hurricane lashes the island. Sam proves a better scout and cartographer than his pursuers, so he and Suzy get some time alone in twelve-year-old paradise before their quarry hones in on them. Once that happens, the film turns into a bizarre caper film that rapidly adds cameo characters of uncertain motives to the cast: Cousin Ben, a Milo Minderbinder for scouts (played by Jason Schwartzman, who starred in Rushmore), Head Scout Master Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel, who thinks he’s playing a WWII RAF officer), and an angular, icy woman called Social Services (Tilda Swinton) who doesn’t necessarily have Sam’s best interests in mind. I not sure anyone knows who or what Bob Balaban is playing; he simply appears on occasion, makes a remark that plugs a plot hole, and disappears.
The film has its charms, and both Hayward and Gilman are terrific. The humor is offbeat and unexpected, but mostly in its small details. (There aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments.) And, yes, its narrative is way tighter than Anderson meanderings such as Darjeeling Limited (2007) or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), though the latter is much funnier. (Darjeeling, on the other hand, is certainly among the worst films of the 21st century.) To be frank, though, Anderson’s coherence is ham-handed. He telegraphs everything and, just in case you don’t get it, his camera lingers on everything prefigured for so long that even the intellectually halt and lame will proclaim “Doh!” I wanted to love this film, but the best I can offer is “meh.” I’m still waiting for Anderson to live up to the promise shown in Rushmore and suspect he may be like Quentin Tarantino before he made Kill Bill–in desperate need of changing his entire focus before he becomes a parody of himself.--Rob Weir