Wes Anderson’s tale of romance and adventure aims for lively but ends up lifeless
Published: June 13, 2012
Directed by Wes Anderson
Opens June 15 at the Charles Theatre
In film speak, sweeping the camera across a scene is called a “pan.” There are slow pans and quick pans, but Wes Anderson has perfected the Dead Pan—a flat, self-aware inventory of precisely arranged precious objects, dollhouse-like interiors, and actors standing with such posed self-regard they make the hallway twins in The Shining look like electroshocked krumpers. Set on the fictional New Penzance Island in 1965, Moonrise Kingdom is really, like all Wes Anderson movies, set in the republic of Wesandersonia, a vast archipelago whose natural resources include vintage clothing and lovingly distressed antique goods, and whose calendar (like how the leader of Turkmenistan renamed all the months after stuff he liked) progresses, at Our Beloved Leader’s whim, forward and backward to any nostalgia-thick point between 1935 and 1976.
It’s summer-camp season, and the Khaki Scouts, led by Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), are pursuing one precocious badge project after another (a Rube Goldberg mechanism for flushing a latrine, or a treehouse teetering atop a spindly pine). Camp reject Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), conspicuously un-robust in his owly glasses and coonskin cap, is having none of it. He’s pining away for a local girl, a dead-eyed redhead he chanced upon the year before: Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a scowling Rapunzel in Peter Pan collars who spends all her time peering out of binoculars from the top floor of her parents’ house, waiting for her prepubescent prince Sam to rescue her. He does, whisking her away to retrace with him the summer migration of the Chickchaw Indians along the Penzance coast, while her parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the police chief (Bruce Willis), and the mobilized Khaki Scout troop frantically search for the duo before a catastrophic storm hits.
Romeo and Juliet have their balcony scene, and Sam and Suzy have this tender moment: frugging shyly on a beach in their underwear to “Le Temps De L’Amour” crackling on a battery-powered record player. A scene that should be magical in a Say Anything meets Band of Outsiders way is instead a clutter of production design details: the specific shade of turquoise plastic housing the record player, the way the paper sleeve of the Françoise Hardy LP cover is caressingly distressed just so, the way Suzy’s plaid panties are baggy and elasticized in the precise way a pair of panties would fit a young girl in 1965. Who cares? What matters is the boy and the girl, but there’s no room for the romance of the moment to seep through the crush of period details. The whole movie suffers from this hoarder hipster aesthetic that seemed so fresh a decade ago in The Royal Tenenbaums but has now either aged terribly or, more likely, spiraled out of control as Wes Anderson gained auteur immunity. The sheer bludgeoning weight of all his trademark twee now numbs the eye and suffocates the story gasping for air underneath. (The end credits listed about as many art department staff as a Star Wars movie lists special effects technicians.)
All that, however, can’t strangle the movie’s one standout performance by Edward Norton. Scoutmaster Ward’s visual details inform rather than swamp his character: knobby grownup knees peeking out from under boyish camp shorts, the paunch beneath his shirt befitting a math teacher for whom scouting is a summer vocation, the filter-tip cigarette always between his lips, accurate for an era when smoking represented maturity, not sinister intent. Norton is not the only capable actor in an ensemble that also includes Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, and Anderson perennial Jason Schwartzman, but he is the only cast member unaware of being a living prop in a darling little set piece, and he delivers his lines accordingly, with sincerity and nuance instead of toothache-inducing irony. When he’s onscreen, the plight of the young lost boy under his care is fresh and real—and when he’s not, the movie retreats back to torturous self-congratulation.
It’s one thing to allow style to become its own kind of substance in a movie, but it’s another thing entirely to make the art department do work usually carried by dialogue, editing, and simple storytelling. (Is it daring and innovative to let the audience cobble together a pivotal fight scene from flashcards of a flying arrow and a bloodied pair of lefty scissors? Or is it just lazy?) Sam and Suzy may be having a romance, but the only believable love story in Moonrise Kingdom is between Wes Anderson and his beloved tchotchkes.
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