I am not going to defend or justify Wes Anderson’s very specific style. You know what it is and you either take it or leave it. (Raul we have never talked about this but based on one comment I remember, I think you’re in the leave it camp.) With every film, Anderson seems to go deeper into himself and his own vision. I don’t have a problem with this because I share his love of mid-century styling and whimsy, I love a couple of his films and I don’t have a problem with any artist having their own narrowly defined style. The Ramones always sound like the Ramones. Neil Young and Tom Waits don’t sound like anyone else. And there are plenty of genre directors. Wes Anderson just happens to be his own genre. Whether you like his style or not is irrelevant here to Moonrise Kingdom because while it may look very much like a Wes Anderson film, I think for the first time he’s actually told a different story.
Don’t get me wrong – this is a Wes Anderson movie all the way. The candy necklace color palette, fanciful to within an inch of its life, precious illustration and handwritten note inserts – they’re all here. And as he is wont to do – there is plenty of whimsy. The fake books with the kooky titles and illustrated covers that are just so, the seemingly requisite set piece of an impossible home, an improbable treehouse, the kids in an adult play with deceptively DIY costumes and a fake map for a fake place because a real place just won’t do. I know, I hear you Raul, I know. But again, this is not really the thing to pay attention to here. The style is the MacGuffin.
In all his other live action films – I’m not counting The Fantastic Mr. Fox – I think Anderson was basically working out his daddy and brother issues. All his films have a male lead with some kind of brotherhood dealing with a father figure who is kind of a crappy father.
Bottle Rocket/co-written with Owen Wilson – one of my favorites – Dignan (Owen Wilson) convinces his friends and brothers in crime Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Bob (Robert Mapplethorpe) to work for Mr. Henry (James Caan) hoping to prove himself worthy for entry into Mr. Henry’s crime ring. In the end, Mr. Henry cons the boys out of everything. The least precious of all.
Rushmore/co-written with Owen Wilson – also one of my favorites – high schooler Max (Jason Schwartzman) marshals a corps of male students to vie for the affection of Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) in competition with jaded industrialist Mr. Blume (Bill Murray). While Max has a dad who is a barber (Seymour Cassel), Max often lies about his career and existence. The right balance of whimsical details for poignancy, not twee sensibilities.
The Royal Tenenbaums/co-written with Owen Wilson – all in the Tenenbaum clan have issues they are trying to rectify with terminally ill pater non grata, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman). Twee goes haywire here combined with grim outcomes, neither successful.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou/co-written with Noah Baumbach – Cad marine explorer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) may or may not be the estranged father to Ned (Owen Wilson). The pirates scenes are the grittiest of all his films which balance some of the silliness.
The Darjeeling Limited/co-written with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman – three brothers (Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman) gather in India after their father’s funeral and literally fight over who will take on their deceased father’s baggage. Even with such a heavy handed metaphor, this is a feather light film. You don’t quite feel you’ve watched a real movie at the end of it.
While the setting changes, the story is pretty much the same, to me at least. A guy gets some other guys to help him deal with an older guy. There is a love interest, but she is the red herring. The real object is the older guy’s acceptance and approval. There may be one other girl and they are relegated to supporting roles. Again, I like his movies. I like that they are about boys and men which will never cease to fascinate me. I like this same story unfolded and reshaped, like watching someone trying to tackle a problem from different angles until they get it just right. But it is the same story. Regardless of the different co-writers, Wes Anderson is working through his shit.
This is what makes Moonrise Kingdom so interesting. It’s got the Anderson tropes - the whimsy, the deadpan kids and the kooky adults. While there is a father here and there, Anderson is shaking off the problems of the past to tell a good old-fashioned love story. I don’t know if he got a new therapist, had a breakthrough with his old therapist or maybe he fell in love but it’s a welcome change.
Moonrise Kingdom is the story of 12-year-old outcasts Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) who, once they find each other, never want to part. It’s a pretty conventional love story actually. Boy meets girl and lightning strikes (literally in the movie). Boy and girl dig each other and run away together, get married, overcome an obstacle and live happily ever after. In case you’re wondering, yes the 12-year-olds have a wedding but it’s sweet and innocent, not creepy and backwoodsy.
The Anderson-isms make their appearances but don’t really add anything. There is yet another map of a fictional place. You’re trying to take us somewhere new, I get it ok? Enough with the playful details Wes! You don’t need them! Like the 375th Street Y(MCA) in Tenenbaums or the jaguar shark in Zissou, the ridiculous treehouse is too much. Rather than hallmarks of a signature style, these are indulgent details and perhaps a writing crutch. Wes, think back to the pared down Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. Less is more. Why is that ridiculous tree house there? It’s not a metaphor. It’s barely in the movie except for a lame sight gag. If it had been in every Anderson movie, like Hitchcock making his sneak attack appearance, I could be more forgiving. Hey it’s the treehouse, wink wink. But I really don’t know what it’s doing here.
Speaking of metaphors, there’s a doozy here. The play/story within a story is a small town production of Noye’s Fludde, translation: Noah’s Flood. Just like the animals, the S’s Sam and Suzy pair off. There is a cleansing flood of biblical proportions at the end of the movie. Water is everywhere in this movie. The story takes place on an island isolated like Sam and Suzy, there are several scenes with various types of boats escaping to a better place and there’s a lot of rain.
But I digress. The important distinctions are the leads. Sam is an orphan and a loner, as if Anderson needs to paint himself into a corner to keep from bringing in the brothers. While he does get help from some boys at the end, it’s not Sam’s way. Everything he does for and with Suzy, he does alone. As for the father in Sam’s story, he’s dead, his foster father flat out rejects him and he could give a fuck because it’s Suzy he cares about.
Oh Suzy. I love this girl. Hard, tough and kind of crazy she’s a departure from the usual Anderson love interest who is idealized and put on a pedestal more precarious than the silly treehouse. Think Bottle Rocket’s Inez, Rushmore’s Miss Cross, and down the line. The men don’t quite get these women and we only learn about their backgrounds in tidbits. But Suzy – she’s got it going on. Direct, vulnerable but not fragile and good in a fight, Sam is the only one who does understand her. There are two shots that stood out to me.
One is Suzy’s POV through her beloved binoculars at her beloved Sam. The other is Sam’s return POV, a straight on view of Suzy looking at him. I don’t think Anderson has ever had POV shots like this, and I’m pretty sure not any from the POV of The Girl. And this shot of Suzy has impact. It’s not some pretty framing, it’s expository. They set a time and place to meet and Suzy got herself there. For once The Girl isn’t part of story, she is the story. It’s his first female lead. We saw her family, we know her story. Ok. Yes, Sam is looking up at Suzy and she’s at the top of lighthouse against a lovely blue sky but you know, it’s still a love story. And it is a beautiful love story. I won’t get all gushy but watching little Sam take care of his woman is heartwarming. Their dedication to each other, trust and faith are the real charms that transport us to a different place.
Anderson still has his squad of hipster cred actors in smaller parts – but instead of the glorified cameo calvalcade in Tenenbaums, he has them mostly pulled back here. The real stars are Sam and Suzy, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Jared has the shadowy moustache and nebbishy look of a pre-teen Wes Anderson stand in but delivers a genuinely moving performance of a man apart. And Lana Del Ray wishes she could do what Kara Hayward pulls off in one over the shoulder glance. I hope to see more of them.
Now that he’s found a different story, my hope is that with the next film, Anderson will also find a different voice. I think he’s exhausted the whimisical one. If he could swing back the other way towards Bottle Rocket territory I think he could be on to something. With his father figure laid to rest and his pack of dudes in the background, maybe he’s finally found a way to turn around and go back.