Whimsical Gallantry

‘Moonrise Kingdom’

Up to now, watching a Wes Anderson movie was like entering a playground and discovering that the sandbox, the teeter-totters, and all the swings were being hogged by adults. Just 10 minutes of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or Fantastic Mr. Fox can convince you that this writer-director isn’t just original but downright precious in both the good and bad senses of the word. Reaching for a childlike freshness, Anderson has created a world American in setting but really existing on no map and nestling in a hidey-hole away from the onrush of history. (By using the word “hidey-hole,” I’ve stumbled into Andersonspeak.) The difference between this director and even the most independent-minded of his cinematic contemporaries becomes clear when you see Richard Linklater’s current (and excellent) Bernie, which portrays an extremely eccentric hero through a measured, mainstream sensibility. In Anderson movies, eccentric stories are eccentrically told.

Consider some of the situations. In Bottle Rocket two youths rob stores at gunpoint—not for money, not to defy society, but to prolong their childhood friendship. The patriarch of The Royal Tenenbaums tries to teach his grandchildren the value of nonconformity by urging them to cavort in the midst of Manhattan traffic. A millionaire businessman in Rushmore, enamored of a schoolteacher, bolts in embarrassment when she catches him ogling her and runs wildly across school grounds in full view of students. If there is something strenuously juvenile about all this, is it any wonder that Anderson’s best work till now was Fantastic Mr. Fox, an animated feature?

The arch dialogue of the screenplays resembles some of the conversations in J. D. Salinger stories and, even more, the chatter of Jonathan Ames’s HBO series Bored to Death. Like Salinger’s Glass family, Anderson’s characters (especially the Tenenbaums) tend to be upper-middle class, secular-Jewish, and rather bohemian. Like Ames’s amateur-detective hero, they often embark on quixotic missions designed to allay the banality of everyday life with whimsical gallantry. This points to Anderson’s abiding theme: In a world of vulgarians, you maintain your best self by making life a game, even a childish game.

These films are visually whimsical, too. The dead-on close-ups have the strangeness of Diane Arbus photographs, but where Arbus intended queasiness, the filmmaker is aiming for po-faced charm. And his editing reminds me of the old TV series Dragnet: the camera stays on each speaker for the duration of a speech instead of occasionally cutting away to the listener. The mock solemnity of the pace supports the mock-naïveté of the dialogue, but all this mock-ness may get on your nerves, especially when the director inserts something in the story that cries out for deeper feeling than he can muster. When Bill Murray shoots and kills a pirate in The Life Aquatic, we seem to have dropped into a child’s game of cowboys and Indians gone horribly wrong. That may be the point, but, when Murray doesn’t react with any emotion commensurate with the situation, he ceases to be the basically decent man his creator intends him to be. Such sour notes crop up often in Anderson’s films. Whimsy may be intended but nastiness inadvertently takes over.

Yet, without abandoning his old tricks, Anderson has now made a moving, utterly humane work, Moonrise Kingdom. A method has found its matter.

The plot couldn’t be simpler. On an island called New Penzance off the coast of New England (but really just Andersonland), twelve-year-old Sam, a “khaki scout,” runs off with the love of his life, Suzy, a child his own age but a lot taller. Into whatever wilderness the island has left go scoutmaster Edward Norton and lawman Bruce Willis in pursuit, along with the girl’s parents, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. The kids are found, virgo intacta but more devoted to each other than ever. Then other scouts, repenting their earlier mistreatment of the orphaned misfit Sam, organize a “liberation” of the sweethearts while being unmindful of an impending hurricane. Nature wreaks havoc, but juvenile loyalty, adult heroism, and a cornucopia of sheer good luck bring on a happy ending that doesn’t feel forced, though it is miraculous.

Stylistic tricks that previously seemed forced now bear fruit because they serve the characterizations instead of being ends in themselves. Though the climactic scenes go further into fantasy than any previous Anderson film (Mr. Fox being the exception, of course), the emotions are always grounded in reality, and the various quests by both adults and children aren’t games foisted on them by the director’s quirkiness. Something is at stake here. The kids, as wise and as idiotic as only bright children can be, have witnessed enough dishonesty and pomposity in the adults to make them seek a temporary Eden. But they’re not crazy and intend to return soon. Anderson has always directed child actors to speak in affectless monotones to highlight, by contrast, the hysteria of adults. At first he repeats this method with Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as Sam and Suzy, but only to establish that they are emotionally troubled and therefore tentative or overly emphatic in their speech. When their love gives them confidence, he allows them more subtle vocal shadings.

 Writing for the adults, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola have reined in the usual Andersonian coyness and crafted dialogue that is pithy, touching, and hilarious. When Suzy discovers that her mother is having an affair with Bruce Willis’s character and complains about “that dumb cop,” Frances McDormand replies, with a beautifully inflected wistfulness, “He’s not dumb, but I guess he is kinda sad.” That beautifully encapsulates what we come to know of Willis’s character and shows a reflectiveness on the mother’s part that Anderson has scarcely ever allowed his characters in the past.

The photography by Anderson regular Robert D. Yeoman has the usual bright, almost fairy-tale look favored by the director, but it’s more relaxed here, and the beauty of the island lends spaciousness to the high jinks.

The cast is a mixture of Anderson regulars (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray) and others new for him (McDormand, Willis). Willis in particular is cunningly employed. At first, his portrayal of Captain Sharp as a bit of a schlump seems a send-up of all those two-fisted action heroes he usually embodies. But as catastrophe approaches, Sharp does indeed get to be a hero, and in a way that may be more gratifying to some of us than all Willis’s Die Hard stunts.

Much of the soundtrack’s music is from Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and his one-act miracle-play opera Noye’s Fludde. Of all modern composers, Britten was the one who best conveyed an understanding of how children look at the adult world: mystified, diffident, intrigued. And he did it with a limpid, entrancing beauty that’s never condescending. In his new movie Wes Anderson achieves the same feat.

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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