As I mentioned on a recent episode of the KtS Podcast, I "get" Wes Anderson's work, but I don't accept it. Having watched all but two movies in his filmography (Bottle Rocket and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), I can safely say that, in my opinion, he is a master craftsman who lacks the fundamental ingredient of any true artist's makeup: a soul.
Sure, that's harsh. I don't know Mr. Anderson personally, and he may be a really sweet guy. But I've been consistently amazed and disappointed at the lack of recognizable humanity in his pictures. Not everything in entertainment needs to be peppy and optimistic, of course, but I don't respond well to entire casts nursing Xanax for ninety minutes, either.
Case in point, Moonrise Kingdom is ostensibly about two thirteen-year-old kids who fall in love during the summer of 1965. Sam (Jared Gilman) is a Khaki Scout who goes AWOL from his troop's island camp site to be with Suzy (Kara Hayward), the troubled eldest daughter of two dysfunctional, emotionally abusive lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Engaged in the search are a not-too-bright cop (Bruce Willis), Sam's part-time-math-teacher/scout master (Edward Norton), and Social Services (a one-person institution, embodied by Tilda Swinton).
While the film is loaded with heavy-hitters like Bob Balaban and Harvey Keitel, none of the performers are called upon to remind us of why they are such icons to begin with. They are in service of a dour, meticulously constructed mash-up of Our Gang and F-Troop reruns. And as much as Moonrise Kingdom feels like an exercise in framing, costuming, and set design, it is also an existential test of movie-star cachet: are the laughs and good will aimed at Bill Murray's having simply showed up on-screen really enough to give his lack of substantive material and/or effort a pass?
For me, the answer is decidedly "no"--especially if the story involves lots of cutting back and forth to different groups of unlikable, identically unexpressive people, all working towards an inevitable outcome. Moonrise Kingdom may have the brand-name legitimacy of an art film, but in quality characterization, originality, and sheer entertainment value, it doesn't even rise to the level of Michael Bay's second Transformers movie (which, at least, had wild, racist-caricature robots to get my blood up every once in awhile).
Perhaps the fatal flaw in Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola's screenplay is that there is no greater meaning to what we're watching, other than the fact that we're watching it. Moonrise Kingdom is comprised wholly of elements and developments from other movies and TV shows. They've been artfully glued together, granted, but who among us hasn't seen the camp revolution movie, the precarious rooftop chase climax, or the played-out Boy-Scouts-as-extreme-military-organization* allegory before? The only difference is there's no balance here, no well-adjusted outsider to smile and tell everyone that they don't have to be sad, stone-faced, and cynical all. the. time. This is the dark side of every Peanuts cartoon, stripped of humor, and relatable only, I image, to people who've never come down from their creepy mountain shacks.
I had a lot of time to question what the hell I was watching, thanks to the lack of engaging material on the screen. In my mental travels, I made the mistake of wondering, about half-way through the film, "Hmm. That's odd. Is there a reason these last three scenes have been comprised of shots that are perfectly divided in half?" Once I noticed this, I couldn't un-see Anderson's obsessive symmetry.
All of his films, in hindsight, suffer from the same annoying problem.** But his bizarre bisecting disorder didn't strike me until watching this one on the small screen. Because the story and performances had failed so spectacularly, I spent the latter half of Moonrise Kingdom trapped in the prison of my mind, waiting (hoping) to find a composition that broke this unnerving cycle. The director may have devoted his career to deliberately defying one of art's core design principles, but, again, I don't accept whatever point he's trying to make. Yes, technically, one is allowed to sculpt a sixteenth-scale replica of downtown Chicago out of hamster feces, but at the end of the day, it's still just shit.
In mainstream hands, this movie's premise can become one of three things: a super-dopey tween farce like Fun Size; a tender, nostalgic comedy like The Sandlot; or a twee semi-comment on/homage to something or other, like we have here. Wes Anderson has cultivated a devoted fan base who will come out in droves for anything he makes, regardless of quality. He's such a wizard, in fact, that he's convinced many bright cineastes that his work actually has greater value beyond the OCD aesthetics. As evidenced by Moonrise Kingdom, however, he's only a shape-shifting robot away from being exposed as the kind of vapid creature most of his fans claim to hate.
*For the record, I was in Boy Scouts for about three years, and Anderson and Coppola's depiction of that life is, I'd wager, purely based on jokes they've seen made about that organization in popular culture--rather than any real-life experiences. I didn't expect reality going into this thing, but I was under the impression I was sitting down to a movie made for smart people (or at least semi-knowledgeable ones).
*To paraphrase Anderson alum Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.