Sunday, June 10, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Alternate Title:  The Age of Awkwardness

One sentence synopsis:   An orphaned boy scout and an girl from a loveless home escape to the woods while the adults on their island try to catch them.

Things Havoc liked: Wes Anderson movies vary from the accessibly weird to the extremely weird, and consensus has generally formed that he's some kind of mad genius of film-making. I'm not prepared to go that far, but I have enjoyed his work on the whole, particularly Rushmore and The Royal Tannenbaums (the first hint I ever got that Ben Stiller could actually act). Given the absolutely universal praise this film had been garnering, and the amazingly star-studded cast he had assembled for it, I was rather excited to go see this one, even putting it ahead of Prometheus on my list (we'll get there soon enough).

And what a cast it is. Bill Murray and Francis McDormand play Mr. and Mrs. Sharp, a pair of lawyers in a seemingly loveless marriage with four children, the oldest of which is Suzie (more on her later). McDormand is known for playing understated roles, and does so here (even while wielding a loudspeaker), while Murray projects the world-weariness that has become his trademark ever since Lost in Translation. McDormand is having an affair with Bruce Willis, the sole policeman for the small island community. Willis, one of the few action stars to successfully transcend action, plays a loveless schlub, with hints of broken romance in his past, though only hints. Meanwhile, Ed Norton, who can be good or bad, depending on the film, plays the Scoutmaster of the local boy scout khaki scout troop, from which Sam (more on him later too) absconds. His character is a typical Anderson character, just a few degrees removed from reality, insofar as he seems to take his role as scoutmaster a little bit more seriously than we can imagine anyone actually taking it, his incompetence notwithstanding. Of the bunch, Murray and McDormand are probably the best as frustrated, lawyers whose empty, brittle lives leave them grasping for anything new ("Why?" asks Murray, when McDormand tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself). All of the actors, however, turn in excellent performances, if (inevitably) very strange ones, including Tilde Swinton and Harvey Keitel (!) in smaller roles.

Yet none of these fine actors are the main characters in this film. The main characters are Suzy and Sam, two extremely odd twelve-year-olds played by Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman. Pen-pals since having met the year before, the two concoct an elaborate plan to escape their home and boy scout camp (respectively) together and find an unnamed cove somewhere on the island to set up camp in, thus kicking into motion the events of the plot. Both kids, particularly Hayward, are excellent, though I admit, the sheer strangeness of the story, the writing, and the basic film-making in general makes it somewhat hard to determine this at first. The kids play their characters as awkward, smart-if-socially-inept pre-teens, in some ways highly insightful and resourceful, and in others horribly naive, with no precociousness to offset or cut the weirdness of the material they are given to perform. Honestly, they do a phenomenal job with material that could not have been easy, even for veteran actors (which neither one is), and while there are times it was almost hard to watch them, those moments were clearly by design.

Anderson's films tend to take place in a world of his own invention, design-wise, with pastel colors and strange, cavernous shot constructions, even indoors, and this film is no exception. The woods and fields of this New England island (fictional, I think), are rendered in bright, vivid color, lending a slight air of fantasy to supplement the strange dialogue and film rhythm. Interior shots emphasize open space, with camera positions near to the floor, making characters tower within large auditoriums. It's a subtle bit of cinematography, reminds me of a more adult (and less fakey-gothy) version of Tim Burton's work, crossed perhaps with Guillermo del Toro, and it works wonderfully, generating a world that's beautifully shot even at night (or during a hurricane). Anderson likes to use the cinematography to just slightly nudge his films outside the boundaries of reality, not so much that we notice, but enough that we pick up on it subconsciously, and that is precisely what he does here.

Finally, though it's not as funny as films like the Royal Tenenbaums , the movie is quite funny, especially in certain parts. Murray in particular knows exactly how to mug the comedy out of an enraged father uprooting a tent, and Norton's Scoutmaster is so eager (and inept) that he becomes hilarious in several scenes. Given the material, which involves children being stabbed with scissors, killing dogs with arrows, forming angry lynch mobs, and being struck by lightning, all while inept adults fight with one another and fail to supervise them in any way, drawing any levity at all out of what could easily have become Lord of the Flies II, is quite an achievement.

Things Havoc disliked:   Wes Anderson's films are always weird. That much is a given. But this time he might have pushed things a bit too far.

It's not that the movie is confusing. The plot is reasonably straightforward, and the characters are drawn broadly enough that we can figure out what's going on without too much trouble. What's weird about it is the tone of the film, which is so damned odd it begins to resemble one of those indecipherable French films from the sixties, the ones where the characters would walk into rooms where everyone was dressed in wallpaper and reciting Chinese aphorisms while gargling. While nothing that overtly oddball happens in this movie, the world is set up in such a way that those things would not be out of place. Characters act and speak in a way that nobody actually speaks, and we know it, and while it's apparent that this is Anderson's intention, I'll be damned if I can figure out what he means by it most of the time. At one point, Murray dramatically walks into his front room in the dead of night, half-naked with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and an axe in the other, and announces to his three small children that he is going to go cut a tree down. Later on we see him doing so. Why? I have no goddamn idea. The tree has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, nor the character, and if the intention is to symbolize things (something I generally dislike in movies) the metaphorical meaning is not at all made clear (at least not to me). What themes are immediately clear are quite simple, an idealization of young love, or a satire of the pretensions of the boy scouts. Yet these seem way too simple to justify the absurd stylization of the film.

Perhaps Wes Anderson, like other artistic-minded directors such as Tim Burton (to his detriment) or Francois Truffaut (to his credit) is just not capable of making a simple movie, and turns everything in front of his camera into off-kilter oddness without even intending to. I can't begin to speculate, but the result in this case is a movie that feels very inconsistently-paced, and times even boring. Characters say and do things for no reason that we can ever discern, and while I grant that in real life, people do this, film is inherently a narrative medium, and one is expected to have, if not a plot reason, at least some reason that we will be able to discern for everything that goes into the movie. Anderson is a fine director, and a skilled scriptwriter, and so I assume that he does have a reason for the strangeness that occurs here. I just wish he'd let the rest of us in on the secret.

Final thoughts:  That said, I don't want to give the impression that Moonrise Kingdom is a bad film. With a cast this good, child actors this skilled, and a story that, despite all the weirdness, is both funny and charming, the movie does what it has to in order to work. It also has the (useful) virtue of becoming stronger as it goes on, and the strange vibe and tone do serve to paper over several otherwise-inconvenient plot holes (how does that kid survive a lightning strike? Because we're in a world where he can). I fought with myself for some time before deciding whether I liked this movie or not, and how much, but ultimately I have to admit that I wasn't sad I'd seen it, and if and when Anderson makes another picture, I'll probably see that one too.

But if it's not too much to ask, next time, can he make the film while sober?

Final Score:  7/10

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