Moonrise Kingdom (2012) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA rated: PG-13 for sexual content and smoking
Running time: 94 min.
Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Wes Anderson delivers another film in his trademark style, full of quirky characterizations, camera shots, and wry sense of humor that just as many will be out of tune with as those that are. It is more of his trademark explorations of love and angst from those residing in broken or dysfunctional homes, who must find a way to build their own family when their own doesn't provide the support they need as a platform for growth. Many will fall in love with the harmony of kitschy visuals and catchy music, enough to keep the tone buoyant and offbeat, which is about where the comedy must reside in order to resonate.
Although many big name tars are attached, much of the screen time is with the young actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who play lovesick pen pals Sam and Suzy, respectively. Set in the summer of 1965 on the fictional New Penzance Island in New England, Sam is the orphaned square peg who doesn't seem to fit in with his group of Khaki Scouts. Suzy is the emotionally maladjusted daughter of a married couple living on the island, Walt and Laura Bishop, who is tired of her existence, especially when she learns that her mother is carrying on an affair with the island's policeman, Captain Sharp. Both Sam and Suzy run away from their respective authority figures in order to carve out their own adventures on the island, all the while those they left behind go on an all out search for them, which becomes especially dire as a giant storm is threatening to hit the island soon.
Anderson's dialogue isn't always easy to deliver, but he knows his characters and their peculiar worlds well, and he does fill each role with just the right comedic actors to be able to deliver their lines without it all sounding out of place. However, there is still the overhead of most of the characters in an Anderson flick doing and saying things in very stylized ways that separates them from a realistic portrayal of children, parents, or symbols of authority. It's more quirk than nuance, and more whimsical than multifaceted. It's a delicate house of cards that Anderson creates, and if any of it falters in tone, the film could come tumbling down as a result. Again in collaboration with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, Moonrise Kingdom is a lovely, sophisticated pastiche, so beautiful to the eyes and ears that even a half-baked story might be delightful to watch, even if just for the moments between the dialogue.
Although Anderson fans have already probably laid claim to just which one of his movies is his best, I do believe that most people who aren't devotees will likely come away enjoying Moonrise Kingdom more than any others. It is still odd and largely outside of reality in its delivery, but there is a childlike quality to the film that audiences will readily identify as the tall-tales that can happen in the eyes and minds of children of a certain age.
Moonrise Kingdom introduces its world at length before zeroing in on any kind of a point; the point in this case being, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop have run away from that world. They’re twelve; played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, respectively, who are also twelve; and Sam and Suzy are very much in love. Their flashback love affair is played in a series of pen-pal letters back and forth in Moonrise Kingdom’s most headily delirious sequence – keep as much of an eye as you can on the background at all times – but really begins when Sam sneaks out of line at a church performance of the story of Noah’s Ark, invades the girls’ dressing room, stabs a finger at Suzy and demands – “What kind of bird are you?”
I like Sam, and I like Suzy, and I like the actors who play them quite a lot. The height of Moonrise’s success is in crafting a very peculiar type of love story between these two youngsters. If in a more conventional movie of this type we will inevitably watch this throbbing stir of first love with a kind of paternal sadness, knowing that all such things come to all too soon an end, Moonrise Kingdom seems to be batting for the probability that Sam and Suzy will never be parted, no matter what. Theirs is an ideal match. The deal is sealed when Sam sneaks Suzy off to a deserted cove, to dance around in their underwear, do a bit of figural painting, and practice French kissing. It’s hard to keep from wriggling when Sam determinedly pierces Suzy’s ears with fishhook earrings he’s just made himself, but try to keep your eyes on the screen – the subtext may not be subtle, but as of right then and there, I’d say these two are bonded for life.
I regret, then, that as the young runaways are captured by their pursuers and forced back into their normal lives, Moonrise Kingdom loses track of them at the centre of the story, preferring instead (though quite nicely, I’ll admit) to monitor the ways in which the community around Sam and Suzy slowly comes to decide which side of the love/separation battlefield they’d prefer to be on. In this dynamic the film’s secret weapon, to great surprise, is Bruce Willis, who has taken to playing quiet character roles with such infrequence of late that one tends to forget how effortlessly solid he is when doing so. As the stoic, sad chief of police of New Penzance, Willis has a great deal under the hood to slowly rev through the back half of the picture; that he comes to, perhaps, the most satisfying catharsis in the film – even more so than Sam and Suzy – is a testament to the undemonstrative power of his work. Stop saving the world, Bruce Willis.
The third act of Moonrise Kingdom is an even more elaborate bait-and-chase-and-fireworks spectacle than the first half, as the young lovers try to win back their freedom; Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel show up for lengthy, delicious cameos, and Noah’s floodwaters return to lend apocalyptic chest-thumping to what might otherwise be a fairly slight story. We feel it. We feel it largely because, as stilted and awkward as their performances frequently are, Hayward and Gilman as Suzy and Sam are nonetheless such a keen screen couple. They achieve more with chemistry as young adolescents than most adult actors could ever hope to. Moonrise, too, is refreshingly honest about its young stars’ means and ambitions. They’re twelve. They ran away from home, made out on a beach, and got caught. But somewhere in the middle of all that, they fell recklessly into the dream – and even if you could swat away all the sparkles and moondust, why would you want to?.
©2012 Vince Leo