The summer feel-good film need not be riddled with bombast or inundated with rarely refreshing movie cliches. Wes Anderson’s newest film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” is a welcome departure from productions that aim to entertain the lowest common denominator. It is a fresh Rhode Island breeze that braces rather than buffets the viewer with overdone movie ideas.
Fans of Anderson’s distinct aesthetic — drawing inspiration from 6o’s French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, Hal Ashby of 1971 classic “Harold and Maude” fame and late Charlie Brown animator Bill Melendez — are in for yet another treat. With an ensemble cast that features Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, Anderson has once proven the consummate writer-director. His meticulous direction couples with a writing style that takes full advantage of pauses and narration to flesh out characters that feel as real as you or me.
The picturesque “Moonrise Kingdom” is set on a New England island devoid of roads but steeped in whimsy. The quaint island houses everything from a husband-wife team of lawyers to Camp Ivanhoe, haven to Troop 55 of the Khaki Scouts of North America. The year is 1965 and the weather promises to be stormy, foreshadowing the events brought on by the disappearance of Sam Shakusky, the troop’s resident outcast.
It is in this milieu wherein the fearless and unswerving childish optimism of Sam and his young girlfriend, Suzy, comes face to face with the authority of adults. Part of Anderson’s filmmaking prowess lies in his ability to make his characters sympathetic without making them overwhelmingly expressive. Monotonous is not the right word — rather, the dialogue is forthright, lacking frills and artificial-sounding admonitions. Even when Suzy gets in trouble for adventuring with Sam, her parents’ response is measured. Composure is as common in “Moonrise Kingdom” as Jason Schwartzman’s almost-guaranteed presence in an Anderson production.
Yet, this composure is a disguise for the emotional undercurrents of the characters who, for all their quaint whimsy, are essentially caricatures of real life. Bill Murray is Mr. Bishop, a rehash of the depressed Herman Blume from Anderson’s 1998 film “Rushmore.” But what is astonishing about Murray and shines especially in “Moonrise Kingdom,” is his ability to add a comedic touch to even the most miserable lines. He delivers his part with forlorn, defeated eyes and still, miraculously, makes the viewer laugh.
Such is the wonder of “Moonrise Kingdom.” There is a touch of sadness to every character, from Edward Norton’s bewildered Scout Master Ward, a doughy-faced, watery-eyed incompetent troop leader, to Bruce Willis’ bemused Captain Sharp, leader of the police force. The adults go through the motions of what adulthood should be, attempting to assert themselves over kids in the awkward growth phase between childhood and adolescence. However, while stodgy grown-ups in appearance, these adults can be hilariously childish.
“Moonrise Kingdom” calls into question the wisdom and power of age. Captain Sharp wearily humors Sam when he claims to be in love, saying he won’t argue with a 12-year-old, and yet concedes that he and Sam are probably about as wise as each other. To Anderson, precocious children inhabit the nebulous world between childhood and adulthood, and adults are tossed into that same gray area, throwing their hands up over their own contrived relationships. Jason Schwartzman, who plays guard scout Cousin Ben, channels Max Fischer of “Rushmore,” the child genius who throws a fit when his love interest doesn’t reciprocate, when he begrudgingly refunds Troop 55 a can of nickels. “That’s my fee!” he cries, and one can’t help but be reminded of a pouting child shouting, “That’s my ball!”
Tilda Swinton’s performance cannot go unmentioned. Given her recent role in 2011’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a film engrossed in detailing the strained relationship between a mother and her emotionally disturbed son’s violent tendencies, Swinton’s role as Social Services — she is, humorously, the physical embodiment of an entire civic institution — is deliciously ironic. Yet she is the only adult with even a semblance of fundamental togetherness; even this is undermined by her desire to put Sam in a juvenile refuge.
But for all the adults’ childishness and all the precociousness of the children, “Moonrise Kingdom” is still a story of kids being kids. Sam and Suzy are dreamers. Suzy is enthralled by stories of magic and faraway places; Sam is enthralled by the ultimate adventure that is Suzy Bishop. The children explore their island and run circles around the adults, taking charge of their own fates as the adults quibble over their own self-absorbed superiority.
Leave it to Anderson and his ensemble cast to craft a world where sagacity and happiness are not exclusive to age. It’s almost too characteristic of Anderson — for all the charm, we are too reminded of his previous works; the writer-director himself struggles to grow beyond his quirky characteristics. But it’s not to his detriment — it’s simply an Anderson signature. “Moonrise Kingdom” proves that love and joy aren’t something to wait for, but something to claim at any moment one wants to. No adulthood required.
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