Thursday, May 31, 2012

Young Moon Rising: 'Moonrise Kingdom' review

For all anyone can say about Wes Anderson--and for better or for worse--he may be one of the few bastions of genuine auteurist debate in the contemporary American landscape. It used to be that every casual movie watcher had their own soapbox position on Quentin Tarantino -- he's a whiny, arrogant snob; or the savior of postmodern American cinema. Now, the throne of hotly-debated director of the moment seems to have emerged as Anderson. Is he a quirky genius of a storyteller, rich in formalist details bolstered by sentimental deadpan? Or is he a hipster drowning in his own pretension, locked in a glass cell of painterly aesthetics who would retch over the sight of genuine emotion?

As luck would have it, Moonrise Kingdom gives fuel to both campsites.

It is, by turns, a heartily soulful film with expertly composed shots and the most calculated of camera tracks and edits; while also finding time to be disconnected, somewhat cloyingly precious, and maybe a bit too knowing about the historical moment it places itself into.

You see, the tiny island the disparate band of characters call home is perfectly emblematic of Anderson's entire ouevre. Cut off from the world, set in 1965, a narrator (Bob Balaban) who may or may not be part of the diegesis, tells us from the outset that a tropical storm will rip through the island in three days' time. This deadline hangs over the entire film, a foreboding of the climax to come. By the same token, though, this storm is indicative of how many storms Anderson isn't taking account for.

In this white-washed, escapist fairy tale world of an island, the banging social and political concerns of the  rest of the world are, simply, non-existant. It begs the question -- why set this movie in 1965 at all? The only apparent answer is for Anderson's own edification, his own fascination with the culture and styles of the 1960s but, in his own typical manner, none of the politics.

If this is an overarching quibble with his work as a whole and this film in particular, that's not to say that Moonrise Kingdom does not do a fantastic job at creating a fairy tale landscape that hovers gently between the naturalist and the hyper-formalist. At the core of this multi-threaded story is a profound early-teen romance between Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman). She is a "troubled child," the violent product of parents too self-absorbed in their own self-imposed misery; he is an orphan also prone to violent (or, as the kids around him label it, "weird") behavior, throwing all his energy into the boy scouts to give himself some semblance of belonging or ability.

They both run away from their wildly inadequate institutions to start anew in the wilderness, a kind of Thoreau-ian ideal that, for all the silliness of watching Suzy carry around a tacky yellow suitcase and Sam's masquerade as a Davy Crockett-esque survival guru, actually kind of works. The two scout out a romantic beach enclave, confess their darkest inadequacies, and even have some sensual thirteen-year-old second base action.

Hayward and Gilman are genuinely gifted actors in that they manage to convey the pain and isolation of childhood Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola aspire to in their screenplay. Yet they struggle, perhaps obviously, with the deadpan aesthetic of Anderson's interactions -- working sometimes too hard to transcend banal emotionlessness. Still, the romance is indeed profound in the most naive sense of the word. As corny as their proclamations of deep, unending love may be, their insularity, their youthfulness allows them to transcend the cynicism of the rest of their existence via the hope that romance exists as a fantasy to be fulfilled.

And, to circle back around a bit, this is the real reason why Anderson's pervasive insularity works for Moonrise Kingdom. The disruption of the storm may ultimately "fix" all the narrative's problems in a magical sort of twisted deus-ex-machina way, but because the film evades all the other storms a moment like 1965 signifies, it sustains its own sweetness. Sam and Suzy's innocence is something to celebrate instead of chastise, and Anderson it seems can only fully establish this through bottling them into an island. One gets the sense that, were either to leave the island -- to leave the carefully constructed world Wes Anderson has built for them -- their love would collapse. Perhaps that's the melancholic truth he wants us to realize.

But this is only one thread of a movie that's also about Sam's boy scout troop, headed by an earnest but wholly incompetent Edward Norton (who may earn the most pathos in the film); and Suzy's lawyer parents -- her mother, Frances McDormand, is having an affair with local police officer (Bruce Willis), while her father (Bill Murray) drinks himself into growing depression.

These adults act as counterbalance to Sam and Suzy, but their childish behavior never leaves the film's periphery. The closest it comes is a great little dinner where Bruce Willis's Captain Sharp offers Sam a sip from his beer, perhaps acknowledging that this child, despite his problems, is more grown up than those around him, who abuse alcohol to escape their pains.

This is all well and good, you may say, but what of Anderson's camera? Moonrise Kingdom does indeed look beautiful; the best shots, if you are an Anderson fan, are of large groups of people carefully arranged, their body language and facial expressions working as collective units, the tensions between foreground and background speaking to the broader meanings of these moments. But despite the literal depth of the camera lens, the cinematography is still dioramic, treating space as "flat," as something to glide across and arrange in degrees of horizontal or vertical axes. In many shots and sequences, things seem to exist on single planes as the camera's movement tracks through on a dolly, and the interspersion of close-ups of letters, novel covers, and albums into the editing signals Anderson's own acknowledgement that he sees cinema as a storytelling device that works alongside these other modes of transmission.

Whether this flatness drains or enhances the emotion of the movie is, again, up to whichever area of Camp Anderson you are invested in. His latest effort is a magnification of all things "Wes Anderson," showing less aesthetic growth than you may hope for even as it revels in its beautiful little spaces. As someone who generally loves his work, Moonrise Kingdom is a bit scattershot: moments of virtuosity offset by moments of overreaching, of stringing the film either too tightly or not at all. There is a continual push and pull between being wholly enamored and somewhat sterilized by the arrangements in Moonrise Kingdom.

At its heart, there's Sam and Suzy. And they push the movie over the edge, into something Anderson hasn't quite hit before. While Rushmore was certainly a movie about youthful consciousness and the juxtaposition between the mature-youth and the immature-man, Moonrise Kingdom stabs at that most pure of emotions: teenage love. Pure, unadulterated infatuation. Sam and Suzy curl around each others' souls, not because they are "more mature" than those around them necessarily, but because they recognize that loneliness is an awful thing to bear.

By not questioning their love--indeed, by singing its praises to the literal church rafters--Wes Anderson neatly avoids the trap he lays for himself in Moonrise Kingdom. It turns out there is a gentle soul beneath that deadpan, after all.

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