REVIEW: Moonrise Kingdom — Attractive and Meticulous, Yet Lacking the Indefinable Magic of Moonlight
Whenever I throw away one of those large round plastic lids from an orange-juice jug, in my head I hear my mother saying, as she would have said to my 8-year-old self, “That would make a great table-top for a doll’s house.” As an adult I don’t have a dollhouse, but I still have a hard time throwing away those orange-juice lids; the mentality dies hard. So why — with one luminous exception — can’t I love the movies of Wes Anderson, the most dollhousey of all filmmakers? Why, specifically, can’t I love Moonrise Kingdom, a sweet-natured picture set in 1965 on a mythical New Englandy island, in which two oddball kids run away together and pledge undying love?
Moonrise Kingdom, like all of Anderson’s films, has been made with a master miniature-cabinetmaker’s care and specificity: It opens with what we might now call an Anderson special, a dollhouse-cutaway tracking shot that distills, in the space of a few minutes, the texture of one family’s life in their grand, ramshackle home. We see a bunch of little boys clustered around a mini record player (they’re spinning Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein), a distracted dad stomping around in madras pants (this would be that glorious deadpan peacock Bill Murray), a young girl who arrives from elsewhere in the house to sit near, yet apart from, her brothers, settling into a window seat with a book.
There’s tension in that opening, as well as a sense of comfort: It turns out that the girl, Suzy (Kara Hayward) — a groovy nerdling in the making who loves François Hardy and has a collection of beloved library books she has failed to return — has been corresponding with a boy, whose faux-Boy Scout troop is stationed elsewhere on the island during this late-summer idyll. The boy, Sam (Jared Gilman), is an orphan who’s been bouncing from foster home to foster home, and he doesn’t fit in very well with his scout troop, either: Along with his badges he wears an ornate costume-jewelry brooch — it’s short a few scratchy pearls. For indiscernible yet understandable reasons, at least in the cruel logic of kids, the other boys don’t like him. He leaves a resignation letter for his ultra-conscientious Scout master (played earnestly and quite wonderfully by Edward Norton) and treks off to meet Suzy for the sojourn they’ve planned, an escape from all the grown-ups and kids who just can't comprehend their weirdo world of wonder.
That means, in this old Yankee version of The Blue Lagoon, that Sam and Suzy camp out on a deserted beach (where he makes earrings for her out of fish hooks and dead beetles; it’s a minor complication that her ears haven’t been pierced — yet). Eventually, there's even a marriage of sorts, performed in the eyes of God and of Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman (as a disreputable but hardly heartless Scout master).
It should all be so lovely, and yet... Anderson — who co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola — can’t forget for a minute how lovely it all is, and he reminds us with every detail: The aluminum ashtray into which Norton’s cigarette-smoking Scout Master Ward tips his ash; a record player that’s operated, impractically but wonderfully, by battery; Suzy’s shift dress, knee-sock and saddle-shoe getups, as if she were a ghost doomed to wear the perennial back-to-school outfit. These relics from a vanished childhood that we either lived or wish we’d lived are all designed to impart a shared intimacy, a response of “Oh! I remember that too!”, whether we actually remember it or not.
And perhaps that’s why the picture’s exceedingly manicured quality works against it. All of Anderson’s pictures are stylized, and stylization is one of the great tools of moviemaking — its very broadness can capture nuances that naturalism fails to detect. But what’s the tipping point between "mannered" and “stylized”? Is a mannered movie simply a stylized one you don’t really like? Maybe. It could also be that most of the true emotion in Moonrise Kingdom exists in the world outside of the kids, a world Anderson dips into only occasionally: He shows us how the marriage between Suzy’s parents, played by Murray and Frances McDormand, is efficient yet frayed at the seams. (Oddly, and marvelously, the essence of this marital frustration is telegraphed best by a bit of shorthand dialogue from Murray, delivered as he grasps an axe in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in another.) The children, on the other hand, are relatively unformed and uncharismatic — they’re a little weird, a little cute, but they’re just not finished yet. They’re dream kids, too wispy to hold down a whole movie, and it’s not their fault.
There are some wonderful things in Moonrise Kingdom: Bruce Willis plays yet another law-enforcement person with deep regrets, the kind of role he can do in his sleep and probably has, yet he infuses the performance with a cartoon melancholy that works — he’s the guy who's never recovered from having an anvil dropped on his head. Alexandre Desplat provides a score that’s delicate where it needs to be and jaunty everywhere else. There’s a kiss that is, literally, electric. And the whole thing, shot by Anderson regular Robert Yeoman, looks characteristically gorgeous — its color palette is semi-psychedelic and dreamily pearlescent at the same time.
So why can’t I love Moonrise Kingdom? For all the movie’s technical meticulousness, the storytelling still has a wiggly-waggly quality, like a dangly loose tooth. In fact, while I appreciate the brashness of Rushmore, there is only one Wes Anderson movie I truly love, and I know I’m not alone: My informal investigations over the past few years have identified Fantastic Mr. Fox as the Wes Anderson Movie for People Who Hate Wes Anderson Movies. In addition to being a marvel of stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox is joyous in trillions of unspoken ways — in the way the texture of the characters’ rangy fur changes in accordance with whatever they’re feeling at the time, in the way it finds such rapscallion pleasure in antiestablishment actions such as digging a tunnel into a rich fatcat’s storehouse. (I’m only just now realizing that Fantastic Mr. Fox was an unwitting precursor to Occupy Wall Street.)
Maybe Anderson’s live-action movies don’t work as well because he’s asking real actors to do the work of puppets — human beings can’t help buckling beneath the thunderous burden of his precocious, overrefined ideas. And that's Moonrise Kingdom in a tiny, mousebed nutshell: It's oddly ambitious and weightless, a movie made with great care and, probably, love, that still sounds hollow when you thump it. Fantastic Mr. Fox explains why I want to save the orange-juice lids. Moonrise Kingdom explains why I steel myself and throw them away.